Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

January 7, 2011


A few days before Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI presented "A Review of the Year" to the Vatican Curia. Central to that review was the sexual abuse crisis that exploded in the US in 2002 and, more recently, in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. Benedict likened Saint Hildegard of Bingen's vision of Christ suffering from the sins of priests of her time to Christ suffering similarly in our time. "Christ's wounds",Benedict quotes Hildegard's vision, "remain open because of the sins of priests." He continues, "The way she...expressed it, is the way we have experienced it this year.. The face of the Church is stained with dust...We must ask ourselves what was our whole way of living our Christian life... We must be capable of doing penance". But does the Pope have it right? Many say he does not!

Benedict echoes the same thought of Pope John Paul II, who addressed the US cardinals at Rome in April 2002 and declared, "We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a thorough purification to the entire Catholic community..." These two popes have misdiagnosed the cause of the abuse crisis as involving the whole Church. This is not true. It is a problem of Church governance. In a control and command system, those who give the commands and exercise the control are accountable for what goes well and for what goes wrong.

The captain of a ship is responsible for its operation and for management of the crew. So, too,stands the bishop with respect to his diocese. The buck stops there! Many bishops, when faced with sexual abuse of young people by some of his priests, covered up the miscreants and secretly reassigned them. All this, apparently, to protect the name of the Church. But those bishops violated the law! Canon 1395 orders such abusers to be punished, period. Not to be reassigned, not to be sent for rehabilitation! This is not to charge those bishops with moral fault, if, in conscience, they judged their actions to be morally acceptable. But the removal of moral fault does not remove accountability. A man, driving a car, makes a bad decision that results in the death of a pedestrian. However morally guiltless he may be, he remains, nevertheless, accountable. However morally guiltless, those reassigning bishops may have been, they remain very much accountable for the incalcuable damage to thousands of children and, ultimately, for giving dishonor to the name of the Church. Many public commentators feel that the US bishops, as a group, remain in a state of denial, unwilling to acknowledge their accountability and the humility that would be expected to accompany it. The US bishops' own National Review Board, in its report of Feb. 27, 2004 stated: "Church officials in the US rarely enforced Canon 1395. Nor have any bishops in the US been punished...for [this] failure...". The report, further, confirms the widespread public feeling that the bishops continue in denial of accountability, when it states: "The impression was created that the Dallas Charter and the Essential Norms were the bishops' attempt to deflect criticism from themselves and onto individual priests...the bishops were engaged in massive denial."

[For 2 page summary of key points of the cited NRB report, e-mail request to me.HJB]

A further indication that the "cover-up bishops" must be held fully accountable for the crisis is the $2 billion paid by dioceses as the result of court judgments and settlements. This money, essentially from the faithful, is not so much about deviant priests; it was paid because courts decreed or settlement meetings of lawyers declared that those cited bishops had failed to do their job and were accountable for resulting damages!

The NRB is quite unsparing in its criticisms of the bishops. The report points to another area of canon law violated by the bishops. Canon 1277 mandates that large sums (such as payments to victims) require review and approval by the diocesan finance council. If this were done, the crisis would never have grown to such great proportions. The report also faulted bishops who allowed the civil society, in infringement of the First Amendment, to intrude on some aspects of church governance. Yet another criticism of the bishops was voiced: "To the extent that a bishop avoids consequences for himself by agreeing to provisions that impose onerous financial or operational restrictions on the diocese (multi-million dollar payments, closing some parishes and selling property to pay damages) the Board has grave concerns about the apparent conflict of interest."

The cited NRB report then rachets accountability up to a higher level. Canon 1389 provides for a penalty for a Church official who fails to perform an act of governance. "Church officials in the US rarely enforced Canon 1395. Nor have any bishops in the US ever been punished under Canon 1389 for a failure to enforce Canon 1395." Only the pope or the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith can sit in judgment on a bishop. Is it a fair question to ask, where were the command and control figures, when these canon laws were being widely ignored? And while catastropic damages to young people and collapse of trust in the Church continued to be played out?

The severe criticism of the bishops by the National Review Board explains why some bishops were angered, some treating Board members discourteously on their visits; four of them unsuccessfully seeking to delay and, perhaps, block the funding of the Board. The first chairperson of the NRB, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, early on having referred to them as "Mafia types", had to resign. The second chair was Anne Burke, Chief Judge of the Illinois Supreme Court - she sharply pointed out that she was named merely "as acting Chair" - after completing her term, gave herself to lecture tours on which she was highly critical of the bishops. After that first critical report of 179 pages in Feb. 2004, little has been heard of the NRB, its annual reports now consisting of merely a few paragraphs.

To return to Benedict's pre-Christmas talk to the members of the Vatican Curia: "Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair...the injustice that has occurred...what was wrong in...our whole way of living the Christian life... We must be capable of doing penance..." As the bishops at Dallas, in the view of the NRB,"attempt[ed] to deflect criticism of themselves and onto individual priests", do we not see Pope Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, attempting to deflect criticism from themselves on to the entire community of the faithful? Please, Holy Father, you have said "Only the truth saves". The truth is that the crisis was caused by a failure of governance! A failure by those who governed; not by failure of the governed. Those governed are the ones who have been hurt, primarily the victims of abuse, the faithful, who have paid financially for the errors of bishops and pope and have suffered profound embarrassment in the public forum, and the priests in the field, their regiment disgraced by misjudgments of its officers.

There is a cruel irony in Benedict's calling on the faithful to do penance. The cited report of the NRB declared that Canon 212, p3 called on the faithful "to manifest...their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church". The Board gave examples of problems that would have been avoided had the laity been involved. Leadership manuals emphasize the value of two-way communication within an organization to make participants feel that they belong, are being heard and have a role in developing the culture in which they are working. Leadership experts call for meetings and wide outreach to garner feedback from board members, staff, employees, and actual and would be customers. Yet organizations like Voice of the Faithful, We Are Church, Call to Action, and others, which include faith-filled Catholics, who simply would like to be heard, are generally not only not sought, but are actually banned as intruders on bishop territory.

This great crisis calls for bold thinking and bold action. Perhaps there is need for wider dispersal of authority to provide local sources of information and local responses, especially about child abuse. Yet John Paul II killed such a would-be instrument, when he castrated the National Conferences of Bishops by demanding total unanimity to give a Conference muscle. Perhaps, the Pope should better deploy the resources of the Church. While the abuse crisis was festering unseen, the Vatican was condemning liberation and other theologians, insisting on translating liturgical texts, such as Japanese in Rome rather than in Japan, and canonizing hundreds of saints. JP II proclaimed more saints than were canonized in the entire history of the Church.

Our Church needs a major sit-down with new thinking, some new actors, and more restraint where ambiguity rules. Our authorities should do more listening than proclaiming, and be aware that control does not mean competence. The old actors and the old thinking have done many fine things, but, at the end of the day have caused, perhaps, the greatest disaster in church history!