Pope Francis greets bishops during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Jan. 9. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: A balancing act

  • January 10, 2019

After an extraordinary year of bickering and division in the U.S. Church, some 200 American bishops have listened to Pope Francis and taken a timeout. They gathered in early January for a six-day retreat near Chicago where they were encouraged to be silent and to pray.

In this contemplative state they were asked to reflect on the trust that had been broken between them and their flock due to a steady stream of revelations and recriminations related to clergy sexual abuse, many of them involving actions or inactions by bishops and cardinals. 

These scandals, which include covering up several hundred cases of sexual abuse of children over the past 70 years, “have caused great perplexity, upset and confusion” among the faithful, said the Pope.

In a letter to the U.S. bishops, the Pope encouraged them to use the retreat to “make room for the gentle breeze” of the Gospel as they set out to repair “the living fabric” of credibility that had come undone. 

He also made clear his distaste for what had gone on, referring to abuses of power, efforts to deny or conceal the sins and crimes of sex abuse, a crisis of credibility and “the pain” of watching bishops concentrating more on “pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation.” 

The retreat was held behind closed doors so it is unknown if the sacred silence was occasionally broken by the grumblings of bishops who were nettled by the plain-spoken papal observations. The timeout was not their idea. It was recommended to them by Francis last fall at about the same time the Pope, in a surprising move, directed a divided U.S. bishops’ conference, which was facing intense public scrutiny, to delay voting on measures that would hold American bishops to higher standards of accountability.

Those measures — which included adoption of a formal code of conduct and a third-party mechanism to report bishop misconduct — made a lot of sense and may be implemented eventually. But nothing will happen before the Pope concludes a summit of bishops from around the world Feb. 21-24 to address the abuse crisis in a global context. 

The past year saw that crisis creep perilously close to the Vatican itself, with  two disgraced cardinals, from Australia and Chile, ousted from the Pope’s inner circle of advisors, and with the removal of American Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals following an investigation. After years of Vatican failures to deal transparently and effectively with sexual abuse, Pope Francis sounds determined to get it right, finally.

He is to be commended for that. But he runs the risk that walking judiciously could be dismissed as stonewalling, just more of the same from a hierarchy with a shameful history of deflection and denial. It’s a delicate balancing act. 

Silence and prayer are important, but so too is action.

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