Wednesday, April 16, 2008


If you only read the New York Times, you'd probably get the idea that the whole point of the Pope's visit to the U.S. was to fail to address the Scandal adequately.

I expect to see many more articles like these in the coming days; typing the words "pope" and "abuse" into the Google News search bar brings up quite a few similar stories.

The issue is being discussed on Catholic and non-Catholic blogs alike: why isn't the pope doing something about the abuse? Why isn't he removing this bishop or that one, forcing the resignation of yet a third and demanding accountability from a fourth?

I understand the level of pain and frustration that lies at the heart of many of these questions. We Catholics are aware that our bishops failed the Church and the victims of abuse by so often moving pedophile or ephebophile priests to different parishes or different ministries where they still had access to young people, and could still continue their predations. We know that some bishops may have tried to sweep the Situation under the rug, and we suspect that others may have been blackmailed into putting up with the worst offenders instead of dealing with them as harshly as their crimes deserved.

But what we don't know are names. And dates. And times. And places.

In a word, we don't have proof.

Though the Scandal is talked about and analyzed ad infinitum, it is easy to forget that a relatively small percent of the child abuse cases even involved criminal prosecution. Often, this was because the cases occurred so long ago that there's no possible way to prove that anything actually happened. To say this isn't to doubt the honesty of the vast majority of the victims; clearly they were abused. But it's hard enough to prove sexual abuse (aside from the most egregious sort which causes physical harm) when a case is recent; a decades-old allegation of fondling may never be able to be proved in the sort of way needed to ensure criminal prosecution of the perpetrator.

And if it's hard to prove a priest really did abuse a specific victim, imagine how much harder it is to prove that the bishop knew for certain that the priest was guilty, and maliciously or negligently covered up that knowledge in order to move the priest from parish to parish. We may suspect that he did; we may even, depending on our connection with a specific bishop or diocese, be morally certain that a particular bishop is guilty of either malicious or negligent conduct. But unless we can prove that this is true, we have no way to insist that this bishop be removed from his office.

The Church isn't a corporation, with bishops as under performing middle managers who can be fired at any time. The bishops are the successors to the Apostles, after all. And while it is certainly true that Canon Law provides for the removal of bishops who have been guilty of wrongdoing, it also requires that the wrongdoing be something of which evidence may be shown. Believing that one's bishop has done something evil is one thing; proving it is something else entirely.

The pope, as the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ, certainly is the leader of the whole Church. But this doesn't mean that he can simply remove a bishop at will. Consider what was necessary when Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated; first, the pope warned him not to consecrate bishops without permission; permission was granted for him to consecrate one bishop; in defiance of that permission the archbishop consecrated four bishops; the Holy See informed all those involved that they had incurred automatic excommunication because of this specific act.

Now, prior to this action, Archbishop Lefebvre had been tangling with the Vatican for almost thirteen years in various ways, but the pope didn't march into France and strip the archbishop of his office--it took a specific action by the archbishop to place him outside of the Church, an action which the pope merely confirmed had indeed taken place and had indeed carried with it the penalty of excommunication.

Clearly if it could be proved that a specific bishop had knowingly and willfully attempted to cover up the actions of a pedophile priest, and had, with complete disregard for the souls under his care, moved that priest from place to place without attempting to stop the abuse from happening, or addressing it when it had happened, then that bishop would very certainly be in danger of being removed from his office, and possibly of facing even worse canonical penalties. But the key phrase is, "...if it could be proved...". Without proof, no matter how just or logical or sincere anyone's suspicions of a bishop's involvement in the Scandal, there is only suspicion--and suspicion alone isn't enough.

Pope Benedict XVI has already humbly identified with the victims of abuse and declared how ashamed he is of those priests who so terribly betrayed the innocent children they preyed upon. But anyone who thinks that his next step will be a wholesale cleanout (akin to Hercules' efforts in the Augean Stables) of the episcopacy of the United States is doomed to be disappointed.

Which is not to say that His Holiness might not be able to remove at least one American bishop in the very near future...

...that is, if he has proof.


Anonymous said...

He did address some of the issueA of the scandal before the plane landed with reporter who were on board.
It is very clear that part of his trip is to promote healing.
But honestly, how is the Bishop of California still there? Why hasn't he been transferred to some far off place?

Also, what a lot of people do not realize is that just because something has gone to court, etc, does not mean that it is over for the victim. This is a horrible cross they have to bear the rest of their natural lives, those who don't commit suicide that is.

Our Bishop still has a lot of work to do. He is not very good at communicating with the public. He isn't. And I do not doubt his sincerity but boy, he flops when put on the spot.


Anonymous said...

It seems the pope met privately with some that had been abused.
This is encouraging. I was wondering why he didn't do the same and maybe celebrate the annointing of the sick. I pray this has helped those that were abused.
What a great Pope we have.
Now, if ALL the Bishops would just follow his lead.