The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Last August in this space, I wrote about the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing Catholic clergy abuse against more than 1,000 children. The report, which covered a 70-year period ending in the early 2000s, provided evidence that bishops had hid the abuse over decades and that some recently retired bishops knew about this duplicity.
Nearly 17 years after Catholics had been assured our house was swept clean, we discovered that the system that hid abuse hadn’t actually changed. It was a come-to-Jesus moment for many Catholics and I wrote that the only way to prod the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops to get their act together was to hold back donations.
Since then, the USCCB has had two chances to get it right — a meeting in November 2018 and one this June. Action at the fall meeting was sidelined by requests from the Vatican, so the bishops were raring to approve proposals in June to enact a May edict from the Pope addressing sexual abuse.
They made some strong steps in the right direction. They approved the creation of a national hotline operated by an as-yet-contracted third party to receive complaints of abuse or cover-up by bishops. They voted to accept the edict’s procedures of how said claims should be investigated by senior bishops called metropolitans (usually archbishops) and required a zero-tolerance policy for bishops’ sexual misconduct — something that has been in effect for priests since 2002.
But they stopped short of the one thing that could help restore trust in the hierarchy: the establishment of a national, independent lay review board to oversee the investigations the metropolitans carry out.
The Pope’s edict “highly encouraged” the metropolitan to include “qualified” lay persons as investigators but did not mandate it.
Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, seemed to understand the depth of distrust in the hierarchy when he said, during open debate on the issue, “Lay involvement should be mandatory to make darn sure that we bishops do not harm the Church in the way in which we have harmed the Church.”
Alas, what was approved is that metropolitans “should” include lay persons in oversight and, perhaps in practice, that should will turn into a must. But if you’re in a diocese that only this spring released names of accused priests going back 30 years (I’m looking at you, Sacramento), one might rightly worry about oversight. If the only person who knows if a bishop is accused of mishandling cases of sexual misconduct himself is another bishop, we’ve got a fox-henhouse problem. It makes you want to holler.
I’ve been asked a lot recently by fellow Catholics disappointed about the USCCB’s June meeting why I stay in the church. That’s sort of like asking why I stay a U.S. citizen with all the flaws of this country. “Catholic” defines me as much as “American” does. I think it comes down to what a friend said: While she doesn’t love everything about Catholicism, everything she loves is Catholic.
For instance, I love that Catholic churches are open every day, not just Sunday, and if I hit a weekday noon mass at Saint Augustine’s Cathedral, I’ll be sitting alongside lawyers, bankers and homeless people. I love that Brian Flagg is still at South Tucson’s Casa Maria Hospitality House, living with and serving the poor, and that when teenagers come for a tour, he tells them their rosary beads mean nothing unless they get their hands dirty with action.
I love that the priests at the Redemptorist Retreat Center in Picture Rocks offer retreats that utilize Catholic spirituality as well as eastern meditation techniques.
I love that evolution is embraced, that we have Vatican astronomers and that non-Catholic writers quote Catholic theologians to make their points. I love that people can show up for Mass draped in a mantilla or wearing gym clothes and the priest will smile in both instances. I love that nuns are badass, that Catholics like beer and dancing, and that this ancient faith produced both Pope Benedict XVI and Jesuit Father James Martin.
In the end, Catholicism isn’t the hierarchy, it’s the people, this ragtag group of sinners and almost saints. Not all bishops have figured out quite yet just how desperately they need the laity involvement in oversight, but I think they will. In the meantime, my heart and soul will be in the pews, but my money will remain directed strategically away from the bishops’ appeals. Because one other thing I love that’s Catholic is the church’s belief in the cleansing power of naming sin and calling for change.