It is with no small amount of frustration to this Catholic in particular to see the latest revelations of abuse and cover-up played out in political terms, both in the media and within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. News outlets focus on the split between conservatives and liberals, and hint that the outrage is getting stoked by “an influential and tightly knit conservative Catholic digital media network” that wants to undermine Pope Francis. At the same time, both the media and many in the episcopate believe that the real crisis is in support for the pontiff rather than the continuing refusal to deal with the decades-long pattern of abuse and cover-up in the church.
“It’s hard to imagine so many people missing the point at the same time,” I wrote in my column at The Week, “but here we are.” Beginning in 2002 with the Boston Globe’s exposé of the local archdiocese, the Catholic Church has had sixteen years of opportunities to act decisively and honestly in resolving the crisis by exposing all of the cover-ups and abuses that took place over the preceding decades. Through three pontificates and episcopacies of all ideological strains, the church has dragged its feet, forcing victims to sue to release those records and grand juries to pierce the veil of secrecy and apathy.
Cardinal Blaise Cupich suggested this week that Pope Francis has a “bigger agenda” to worry about than this crisis, but that’s exactly backward. This crisis saps the credibility of the church and every Catholic within it to address any other issue until this finally gets resolved. Every new revelation makes that credibility crisis worse, undermines moral authority of the Catholic Church, and those outcomes have had real-world consequences:
This crisis keeps getting deeper because the Catholic Church refuses so far to deal honestly with it. If the Vatican and the bishops wanted to confront this crisis, all of the dioceses around the world would have been ordered to release all their documentation on abuse cases to the public, or at least to law enforcement. Instead, 16 years after the Boston Globe series of reports first exposed the crisis and the reach of its cover-up, we need grand juries to conduct investigations to get around the silence of church leadership. We hear from people like Cardinal Wuerl that new procedures have been put in place to deal with abuse, and then find out later that known abusers remain in public ministry — and in cases like Cardinal McCarrick, continue to occupy positions of power.
That didn’t start with Francis. It started with St. John Paul II, extends all the way through the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and the five-plus years in which Francis has been in charge. It involves liberal and conservative bishops, liberal and conservative priests, and liberal and conservative dioceses. This scandal infects every corner of the church, and will until it gets fully exposed.
Sixteen years of dithering and half-hearted reforms following decades of abuses and moral depravity have sapped the church’s credibility on all of the issues Cupich mentions, and more. It’s no accident that Ireland, once considered the most Catholic of nations in Europe, overwhelmingly voted for legalized abortion this year over the objections of the church. Argentina, the pope’s native country, may yet pass its own bill legalizing abortion. This follows decades in which the church has lost ground on any number of moral issues especially in the West — euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and others.
The Vatican does not have massive armies, nor does the Catholic Church command a massive economy. The only influence it has comes from its credibility as a church serving as a pillar of morality and reliable rectitude. In essence, the Catholic Church has disarmed itself.
Given this history, it’s particularly frustrating to see the debate play out along ideological lines. This isn’t that big of a mystery, but if it was, it’d be akin to Murder on the Orient Express, in that everyone did it. Pope Francis has the authority to order complete transparency and hasn’t, but then neither did Benedict XVI or Saint John Paul II either. The USCCB’s first instinct in the latest crisis was to have the same bishops who have kept records under wraps conduct the investigation of Cardinal McCarrick themselves, just as they have done for the better part of two decades. It’s a failure across the board.
This ideological debate is a smokescreen at best, and a manipulative hobby horse at worst. The real problem isn’t right/left, conservative/liberal, or Francis/Viganò. It’s the complete failure of the organization to live up to its ideals as a moral pillar, and to follow its own teachings on the value of confession and repentance. The trench warfare that has erupted is just another distraction from the real crisis, which is that we still have no full accounting of the abuses and those who helped cover it up sixteen years after the Globe first raised the issue.
Until we get to that level of transparency and accountability, we Catholics will continue to endure shocking revelations dripping out from grand juries and lawsuits. Our trust in the episcopate will continue to get damaged with each revelation following each assurance that this time we have fixed the problem. If that continues for much longer, the ideological battles won’t matter any more, because people will lose faith in Christ’s church, with outcomes like we saw in Ireland this year and worse. If that matters to the Vatican and Catholic leadership, they need to stop sniping at each other over their ideological grudges and open the books once and for all.
That would be true leadership and repentance, and (finally) set an example for Catholics and others around the world. Will such courageous leadership emerge?