Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City assists Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, as they arrive for the closing Mass of the jubilee Year of Mercy celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican 2016. Also pictured are Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy; Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston; and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: A first good step

  • September 27, 2018

Miami Bishop Thomas Wenski was achingly correct when he stated in a recent homily that the storm pounding the Church is not a crisis of faith, but one of leadership.

“Our people still do believe in God,” he said, “but they don’t believe in us.” 

It was a sweeping generalization of bishops, of course. The vast majority of Church leaders are faithful, honourable men. But their office has been tainted by the betrayal of several brother bishops, hypocrites, whose immoral actions (and inactions) have placed the episcopacy under a dark cloud.

In these difficult days, all of the clergy needs prayerful support from ordinary Catholics amid the cry for reform being so painfully demanded to end sex-abuse scandals and coverups. But in return for that fidelity, Church leaders must take concrete, visible actions to deconstruct with vigour and urgency a clerical culture that has sickened the Church with the cancers of entitlement, impunity and arrogance.

A vital step in that process is developing protocols with teeth to hold bishops just as accountable as priests for their actions or inactions. Minors who were abused or seminarians and young priests who were sexually exploited by their bishop have been silenced too often out of blind loyalty, intimidation or fear. As became evident in the case of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, even credible claims against a prominent Church figure can be covered up. That must change. 

American bishops are to be commended for taking a first step in that direction by proposing new policies to govern bishops. In addition to calling for an investigation of the McCarrick affair, they pledged, “at this time of shame and sorrow,” to develop a code of conduct for bishops and to create policies to ensure restrictions on scandalized bishops who have resigned or been sanctioned are indeed enforced.

But perhaps the most significant short-term proposal is a pledge to launch a third-party reporting system to receive confidential complaints about bishops. Credible allegations involving sexual abuse of minors or misconduct with adults will be shared with authorities in Rome and, when a crime is suspected, with police.

These are all good measures which, hopefully, will be expanded, fully developed and endorsed by not only every U.S. bishop but resonate with Canadian bishops and with bishops’ conferences worldwide. The problem, however, is that bishop accountability is not a matter bishops can solve alone. Oversight of the episcopacy is a papal responsibility. It is therefore up to the Pope to turn such voluntary protocols into mandatory statutes.

Pope Francis has summoned the head of each of the world’s national bishops’ conference to Rome for a February summit. Accountability needs to be at the top of their agenda. The Church must remedy its crisis of leadership before it becomes a crisis of faith.

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