By Owen Pheps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

For the past 16 years, since the clergy abuse sexual crisis first exploded on the pages of the Boston Globe in January, 2002, I have scrupulously avoided personally commenting on it.

However, as head of an organization devoted to developing Jesus-like Leadership among Catholic members and leaders, it’s impossible now to avoid commenting on the egregious leadership failure of Catholic bishops documented in a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report.

The force of the report rattled the church – its members and its leaders – all the way to the Vatican.

  • Expressing “shame and sorrow,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said: “Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and faith.”
  • In an unprecedented letter Monday to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis said, “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

Pope Francis added: “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such [abuses] from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Up close and personal

I’ve been close to the clergy sexual abuse crisis for a long time. As a diocesan communications director, I dealt with all the allegations, confirmations and blowback in our diocese. Also as a volunteer for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Office of Communications, I fielded media inquiries and blocked gate crashers at the bishops’ meeting in Dallas in June, 2002, where they adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to deal with the crisis on a “zero tolerance” basis going forward.

A cousin by marriage -- a man I thought I knew well and liked a lot -- was the first priest whose abuse was reported in the media in our diocese. Meanwhile, a good friend sat down with me one day and described the abuse he suffered while in a Catholic parochial grade school. It took him decades to even comprehend that it was abuse – and then he was crushed.

While I served as a close advisor to a bishop and his diocesan team, I nevertheless refrained from publicly expressing my own opinions about the cause and possible solutions to the leadership crisis. Privately, I did resolve that I would put my roles of father and grandfather first and never do anything to cover-up or protect an abuser. Fortunately, I was never asked to.

Now, as church members and leaders are rattled once again by the specter of rampant abuse – much of it facilitated by scandalous leadership decisions – it’s time to share a few things which I hope provides some perspective and offers some modest hope for effective reform in the days ahead.

Comprehensive report

The 1356-page grand jury report, released Aug. 14 by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro after a two-year investigation, was nothing if not comprehensive. It covered in excruciating detail more than 1,000 cases of abuse by 301 priests in six of the state’s dioceses.

In response, Shapiro said: “Senior church officials, including bishops, monsignors and others, knew about the abuse committed by priests, but routinely covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests, and monetary damages to the dioceses. Priests committed acts of sexual abuse upon children, and were routinely shuttled to other parishes – while parishioners were left unaware of sexual predators in their midst.”

In a proposal that would have far-reaching impact on the Catholic Church, the grand jury recommended reforming the criminal and civil statutes of limitations on sexual abuse in Pennsylvania -- and Shapiro called on every Catholic bishop to support those reforms.

Some things old

Despite its shocking context, in one sense the report told us nothing new about the pernicious problem of clergy sexual abuse.

  • In 2004 the John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. bishops, indicated that some 11,000 allegations had been made against 4,392 priests in the U.S. -- approximately 4 percent of all priests who had served during in 52-year period covered by the survey (1950–2002)
  • We knew, too, that there were cover-ups, beginning in Boston but by no means ending there. After credible reports of sexual abuse, many priests were reassigned to other parishes and abused again and again – sometimes after treatment, sometimes not.
  • We knew that the church had spent more than $3 billion on settlements to victims, forcing several dioceses to declare bankruptcy.
  • We also knew our own minds about the aftermath. In 2013, more than a decade after the Boston Globe broke the story on clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up and the U.S. bishops adopted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a survey conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 78 percent of Catholics disapproved of the way the church had handled the scandal.

In a very real sense, the ground plowed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report was not new.

Some things new

And yet, there was much to be newly troubled about in the report and in the reporting about it.

  • There was the magnitude and detail it provided.  By naming the accused and describing their deeds in often vivid detail, the report put meat on the bones of predator and prey alike. Real people were hurt. Real priests hurt them. Some of them hurt again and again. (One priest was sent for treatment and then reassigned six times between 1982 and 2003.)
  • The pattern of covering up and reassigning predator priests was so consistent from diocese to diocese that the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime concluded that church leaders’ actions looked like “a playbook for concealing the truth.” 
  • In some places, the abuse by clergy was finally put in the context of abuse by others – at major universities, in elite prep schools and in USA Gymnastics – highlighting the failure of leadership in a variety of organizations, not just the church.

But just because sexual abuse of minors is widespread does not mean it is any less pernicious in the Catholic community. The Catholic Church claims a higher status than other organizations, which means it should be held to a higher standard. The way its leaders have often handled incidents – crimes, sins – is absolutely scandalous.

In many instances it has not only shaken the institution to its foundations, it has shaken the faith of Catholic laity. Of course, that was true even before the Pennsylvania grand jury report. As a story in the Washington Post reported Aug. 20:

The Catholic Church has lost more members in recent decades than any other major faith. About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cited clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the church, according to Pew research in 2015. And among former Catholics who now identify as Protestant, 21 percent say the sexual abuse scandals were a reason for leaving Catholicism.

Faith versus religion

Still, the grand jury report did have an explosive impact on Catholics across the nation. And even where people continued to profess faith in God, they indicated their faith in the church and its leaders has been deeply shaken.

In the Aug. 20 Post story, Patricia McGuire, president of the Trinity Washington University, founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was quoted as saying: “It’s almost unsalvageable. The church is in pieces. People have completely separated their faith from the organization.”

The story also acknowledged that “Catholics had a range of reactions – from those who can’t be shocked anymore to those who were newly grieved, from those who feel Catholics are unfairly singled out to those who maintain their faith in the religion but not its leaders.” Personally, I have heard all of these perspectives expressed by friends, colleagues and fellow parishioners in the past week.

An interesting mix is embodied by Elizabeth Rhodes, a former Fox News producer, who told Post reporters, “I hate this focus [on Catholics].” Yet, she added that she thought Pope Francis responded too slowly to the scandal in Chile, and she was upset by the revelations earlier this summer about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. She also no longer trusts Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who is now under fire for his handling of abuse cases while head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Nevertheless, Rhodes still trusts the priests she knows personally, as well as her religion. “For me, church is like a hospital,” she told Post reporters. “You go for help. You go in times that are difficult. You need that support, just like you need to work out physically.”

Priest’s positive reception

The Post story highlighted a homily this past Sunday at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in D.C., where Father Alec Scott, described as “a young, impassioned priest,” encouraged churchgoers “not to lose their faith in God or Catholicism amid a ‘period of darkness’ for the church.”

He told his audience, “For all the frustration this has caused you, I express my condolences. But without you, reform won’t be possible.”

The audience applauded.

Prospects for reform

I’d like to say a few things about reform, if for no other reason than to set realistic expectations going forward.

First, there is no easy, quick fix – especially when it comes to restoring trust. It will take years, decades, perhaps generations, if it happens at all.

Second, church leaders have taken several decisive actions since adopting 2002’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and these actions have reduced the number of cases. Significant progress has been made, and the bishops should be given credit for that.

Third, it’s clear from the variety of cases described in the report that there will never be enough oversight to prevent every instance of clergy child or adult sexual abuse in the future. Priests cannot be kept in compounds, under surveillance every waking moment and still perform ministry. Even the most conscientious bishops are going to have some messy and tragic cases dropped in their laps.

Fourth, bishops cannot effectively combat clergy sexual abuse on their own. While it’s true that some bishops permitted some priests to become serial abusers, in many cases abuse continued over many years and involved many victims simply because it wasn’t reported. The whole Catholic community has to be vigilant to prevent both first time and serial abuse.

Fifth, a commitment to report abuse is not, by itself, a solution. When abuse is reported, authorities must take action. The grand jury noted that in one instance, between 1969 and 1970 a priest discovered another priest, Father Michael Barletta, exposing himself to a student who was naked from the waist down. When he reported it to a monsignor (presumably the pastor) he dismissed the report and fellow priests laughed it off. Between 1975 and 1994, when Barletta was dismissed from a Catholic high school, he admitted abusing 25 children and young men. In any event, it is much better to prevent abuse than to stop it.

Sixth, even the practice of reporting all suspected cases to the police -- a sound first step – is not a panacea. In one case reported by the grand jury, a priest who admitted abuse was released by police without being charged. In another case, a policeman who caught a priest assaulting a teenage boy in a car gave the priest “a lecture and sent him on his way.” His “way” involved continuing to function both as a priest and predator for 34 more years.

Seventh, getting rid of homosexuals in seminaries or rectories, or both, will not solve the problem. The grand jury report tells of one priest who molested a boy while carrying on with his mother. And the report includes many cases of serial abuse of females. The John Jay report says 19 percent of priest abuse cases involved females.

Yes, there are homosexual men in the priesthood, and the active ones are problems that must be addressed because they are breaking their vows of celibacy, whether or not they prey on children (most don’t). But others keep their vows and render yeoman service to the church and its members. If a person is faithfully practicing his vow of celibacy, what difference does it make what he is giving up?

Eighth, turning over governance to lay people is not by itself a solution. I’ve seen enough lay people engage in duplicitous, self-serving behavior that destroys lives and organizations to know that we provide no guarantee of reform. That said, lay people need to be more actively involved in the governance of dioceses. I’m convinced that if a mother or two had sat at the table when Cardinal Law or any number of bishops considered reassigning a child sexual molester to a parish, it would not have happened – or if it did, the mothers would have declared a very public war on the hierarchy.

Ninth, the worst is almost certainly not over. In confession, Catholics are told that part of the process of being forgiven for sins is to confess them “in kind and number.” Perhaps that, too, will prove a necessary part of the process of reconciliation of church leaders and members in the body of Christ. In any event, as long as dioceses keep their rosters of credible abuse cases secret, there is always the possibility that what has happened in Pennsylvania will happen over and over again, one diocese or state at a time.

The only sure-fire way to avoid more Pennsylvania-style exposes is for all of the church’s remaining dioceses to release the names of those who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse, along with what details are known about the abuse and how it was handled. That will be a very bad day for the church -- but it may also be a necessary first step toward genuine reconciliation and renewed trust.

John Beasley, a 26-year-old who appreciated Father Scott’s sermon, told the Post: “I don’t doubt in God, but it does make me worried about the hierarchy. We’ve all been pretty well betrayed by the hierarchy and certain systemic issues that the church is refusing to get rid of.”

He added that it will probably take generations to undo the damage that has been done to the church. That strikes me as realistic, perhaps even optimistic. Against a background of rapid secularization in the society, it’s possible that the damage may never be fully undone.

In any event, I can’t see bishops ever being able to exercise the exclusive moral or administrative authority they have enjoyed in the past. That ship has sailed. I think the key to them truly serving the function they are consecrated to serve will be their ability to convene clergy and laity in community to foster collaborative decision-making and evangelical zeal -- especially around acts of charity and a firm commitment to model justice.

The focus of leaders and members alike must be on living and proclaiming Gospel values. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis shares his dream for the church: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, time and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” (¶ 27)

With the ranks of clergy and religious waning, much of the actual work will fall to the laity. Now more than ever, the future of the church is in our hands.