The National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People is to be commended for its candid and balanced report. It is an example of the kind of lay participation in church governance that the sexual abuse crisis has taught us is necessary today. The report calls for transparency and accountability in church affairs, invigoration of diocesan pastoral councils and a role for the laity in the selection of bishops.
The report correctly points out that there are two aspects to the crisis in the church: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the failure of many church leaders to respond appropriately. The poor performance of these leaders, the board says, was caused by their misunderstanding of the problem, fear of scandal, fear of litigation, reliance on the advice of psychologists and lawyers, placing the interests of accused priests above those of victims and canonical procedures that made it difficult to remove a priest.
The board pointed to episcopal responsibility as a still unresolved issue of the sexual abuse crisis. In the United States, many expect the head of an organization to take responsibility for what happens under his or her watch. They feel that the good of the organization may require the leader to stand up and say, “I did it. I am sorry. I take full responsibility, and I resign.”
But many bishops who acted correctly are being tarred with the same brush as bishops who did not. Many of the abuses occurred under bishops who are now dead or retired. When the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, for example, pleaded no contest to the charge of not reporting abuses, it was for abuses that occurred under Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, not under the current archbishop.
In judging the responsibility of any leader it is necessary to ask: What did he know; when did he know it; and what did he do?
What did he know? The full extent of the crisis became apparent only in recent years. According to the John Jay report, which was commissioned by the review board, one-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002-3 and “prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials.” Bishops cannot be held directly responsible for cases that they did not know about.
When did he know it? There are two important dates in the sexual abuse crisis: 1984 and 1992. In 1984 the case of Gilbert Gauthé, a former priest, gained national attention and resulted in a multimillion dollar judgment against the Diocese of Lafayette, La. Insurance companies quickly told dioceses that they would not cover sexual abuse cases in the future. This was an early warning that action was needed. Between 1985 and 1992, the U.S. bishops’ conference held closed door discussions and workshops to educate bishops on the problem. At these meetings, some bishops warned their brother bishops, “Don’t make the same mistake I did.”
Some bishops learned faster than others, but by 1992 the conference had issued five principles to guide bishops in responding to the abuse crisis. The mistakes made by bishops before 1985 are tragic, but these bishops are less culpable than those who ignored conference guidelines and did not deal with abusive priests after 1992.
What did he do? At their national meeting in Dallas in June 2002, the bishops adopted a policy of zero tolerance: no priest involved in even one act of abuse could act as a priest again. Prior to the Dallas meeting, this was not the law, and the responses of bishops had varied greatly. Some had excluded abusive priests from ministry—although Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh ran into canonical difficulties with the Vatican in 1995 when he tried to do this. Some priests underwent professional evaluation; others were sent away for treatment. Some had their ministry restricted; others did not.
In 1993 the bishops were advised by a group of psychologists who met in St. Louis that the possibility of return to ministry should be left open—the same recommendation made recently by a group of non-Catholic specialists who were asked for advice by the Vatican. Bishops who took precautions and followed psychologists’ advice may have made tragic mistakes, but these bishops are not comparable to those who took no precautions.
While recognizing that bishops have no canonical authority over one another, the National Review Board calls for “fraternal correction” of bishops by bishops. Such fraternal correction is rare but not unheard of. Cardinal Bernard Law and others openly criticized Cardinal Joseph Bernardin for his participation in the Common Ground project, which encouraged dialogue among Catholics. But no bishop ever publicly criticized Cardinal Law or any other bishop for failing to respond to the sex abuse crisis. Fraternal correction is not easy, but as the board notes, it is one of the things the bishops must do.