Yesterday Pope Francis presented an "action plan" to a summit meeting of bishops, for combating the sexual abuse of children by priests. I find it woefully inadequate, a mere re-hash of concepts and proposals advanced many years ago, with no new thinking. I fear it will be completely useless, because it's focused on the wrong problem. Priests, in general, are a reflection of those who select, train and ordain them - the bishops; and it's among the Church's bishops that the solution to the problem must be sought.
I wrote some years ago about the problem of "organization men", and how bishops were selected all too often from among such individuals. That's not the entire problem. The organization of the Church as such has effectively removed much of their everyday authority and responsibility from bishops, by submerging them in minutiae. If they're trapped at their desks, reading reports, signing documents, and shuffling papers, they can't be out there among the people of God, seeing at first hand, up close and personal, how they're living and the nature of the problems that confront them. They can't be in the trenches with their priests, seeing the difficulties they face in "tending the flock of God". They're cut off, isolated, from that reality - and it shows in the way the clergy child sex abuse scandal has been handled. All too often, the knee-jerk response from bishops has been to circle the wagons and defend the institution of the Church, rather than the victims of the abuse. It's almost as if the latter had become an afterthought, a mere irritation compared to the real issue.
Until the 20th century, most bishops in most dioceses had to spend a lot of time on the road, traveling from one end of their see to the other. In the process, they had plenty of time to spend in parish rectories and the homes of the faithful. They couldn't help but notice what was going on there. In the same way, they visited institutions in their diocese much more often - convents, monasteries, schools, etc. They could keep their fingers on the pulse of activity far more routinely than they do today, where every visit is scheduled weeks or months in advance, usually highly scripted, and time-managed to such an extent that there's little or no opportunity for the bishop to "manage by walking around" and see things for himself. The advent of technology - travel by train, car and aircraft, the telephone, fax and e-mail, business administration machines and programs - made it easier to travel, but also made such travel less necessary, in that much can be done remotely that previously had to be done in person. It's been a two-edged sword.
Because of their more office-bound, sedentary, "managed" day-to-day existence, bishops have in all too many cases lost focus on the pastoral aspects of their ministry. They're glorified (you should pardon the expression) managers rather than apostles, business executives rather than shepherds of the flock, bureaucrats rather than pastors. They tolerate, even accept this changed role, one that many of their predecessors would regard with horror as not just un-pastoral, but actively anti-pastoral. As a result, they don't share the day-to-day problems and burdens of their priests, and all too quickly forget what they experienced of them during their own pastoral careers.
In their famous book, "The Peter Principle", Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull point out:
Most hierarchies are nowadays so cumbered with rules and traditions, and so bound in by public laws, that even high employees do not have to lead anyone anywhere, in the sense of pointing out the direction and setting the pace. They simply follow precedents, obey regulations, and move at the head of the crowd. Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship.
In my opinion, that perfectly describes what far too many bishops had become by the time the clergy sex abuse scandal reared its evil, predatory head. They were no longer leaders. They had become mere figureheads - and far too many of them were content to remain figureheads. Even worse, as has since become clear, some of them - including some in very senior positions - were active participants in that evil, even as they put on a holy public face and pretended to participate in finding remedies for it. I honestly don't know whether that sin can be forgiven, even by God. I suspect it cannot.
This is a major reason why the problem of clergy child sex abuse became so serious. The bishops abdicated their primary responsibility to their clergy, who are officially defined as their "co-workers" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 893). All too often, priests were (and still are) treated not as valued co-workers, but as unruly subordinates who have to be kept under the bishop's thumb, distrusted unless they constantly "suck up" to the powers that be. That's why so many priests, including myself, were so angry at the initial measures enacted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to deal with the crisis. They treated all priests with suspicion, as criminals until proven innocent. This was completely unacceptable. It still is.
That's why I don't believe that a conference of bishops is the right vehicle to study the problem of clergy child sex abuse, or find solutions to it. Many of the bishops taking part in it are guilty of precisely the failings described here. They will not be able to come up with any effective solutions, precisely because they are not effective bishops.
That's how I see it, anyway. Others may differ.