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Entries from December 2020

Truth-Telling, Transparency, and Accountability

On the eve of the Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse in February 2019, Roman officials praised the Canadian bishops’ guidelines on responsible ministry, “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation,” as a model that might be emulated by other bishops’ conferences throughout the world. Adopted at the Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in September of 2018, it was an updating of the first guidelines on clergy sexual abuse in 1992, From Pain to Hope, established following the notorious case of abuse of children in the Mount Cashel Orphanage run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s Newfoundland. While the CCCB pioneered the development of protocols for the investigation of abuse, Canada remains one of the few Western countries that has yet to experience an external audit for their effective implementation or see a comprehensive inquiry into historic abuse.

As if to rouse Canadian church leaders from their self-congratulatory complacency or to shock the sanguine conscience, on November 25, the Archdiocese of Montreal released the report of an independent investigation into the (mis)handling of complaints against former priest, Brian Boucher, now serving an eight-year prison sentence for the sexual assault of two young men. Retired Quebec Superior Court Justice Pepita G. Capriolo paints a detailed and sorry picture of repeated failures to investigate multiple complaints concerning Boucher’s inappropriate behaviors that predate his 1987 admission into seminary.

After interviewing over 60 witnesses, the good judge was “shocked” to find a deeply ingrained culture of secrecy and buck-passing where “no one took responsibility for acting” on complaints. Files and documents were “lost” or destroyed. ‘Secret files’ were hidden even from the archbishop, providing a pretext of plausible deniability in the event that police came looking. Curial staff proposed sending the Boucher files to the papal nunciature where they would be protected by diplomatic immunity. The “primary culprit” in a travesty of faults: lack of accountability. Absent any direct evidence of sexual abuse, no one was prepared to act. Capriolo sums up the “Catch 22” attitude of many: “one cannot investigate without proof, and proof cannot be obtained without an investigation. Ergo: do nothing.”

This tragic spectacle transpired against the background of the 1992 guidelines of the CCCB, From Pain to Hope that called for “giving priority to the protection of children and vulnerable adults, taking allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, independently of esteem for the reputation of the accused.” Boucher’s case was never referred to the diocesan advisory committee on sexual abuse established in response to From Pain to Hope. At almost every turn the desire to protect the reputation of the diocese and its priest trumped all others.

The Capriolo report shines a bright light on the weakness of the response to the sexual abuse crisis across Canada. It is well to have policies and procedures, but without transparency and accountability, one is reduced to a blind trust that every bishop has put them into action with effect. Advisory committees appointed by and reporting back to bishops are liable to remain, but a new cog in a closed wheelhouse. There is no way to verify that every complaint is being referred to competent professionals, that these are being properly documented, or referred to appropriate civil authorities.

Among the important lessons drawn by the report is that “limiting the obligation to intervene to cases of sexual abuse of minors is a mistake.” This is not the first case where seminary and diocesan staff were prepared to look the other way when presented with repeated complaints of psychologically and physically abusive behaviors – some of which might have been recognized sooner as manifestations of grooming behavior. Capriolo connects the dots between sexual abuse and other abusive conduct. Her observation bears repeating:

I do not believe that restricting the need for greater responsibility, accountability and transparency to the sole issue of sexual abuse of minors is reasonable. All abuse, be it sexual, physical or psychological is unacceptable. And although the idea of subjecting a child to sexual abuse is particularly abhorrent, the abuse of anyone in a position of vulnerability and inferiority must equally be pointed out and eliminated. … A priest has an inordinate power over people who put their trust in his spiritual strength and his apparent connection with the divine. It is therefore easy for a priest to abuse this trust if he so wishes and that can happen even if his victim is 18, 25 or 90.

This insight into the abuse of power underpins the recommendation that “all issues of abusive behavior, not limited to sexual abuse of minors, be referred immediately to a modified advisory committee.” To break a dithering self-protective closed circuit of inaction, the report recommends the appointment of a “qualified specially trained external ombudsperson” (emphasis in the original) to receive and investigate all complaints and allegations of abuse, all of which are to be brought to the attention of the modified advisory committee. These measures, combined with improved education and training concerning the nature of abuse and the obligation to report – reinforced by clear sanctions, improved protocols for record keeping and the disclosure of information and the publication of regular audits – would mark important progress.

Wisely, Archbishop Lépine has committed to pursuing a full review of Montreal’s diocesan archives in the interest of greater transparency and of learning from the past. The publication of the Capriolo report is an important first step toward a culture of greater transparency and accountability. While it may rightly provoke anger and shame, to achieve its purpose it must become a source of learning for the whole Catholic community.


Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.


Selecting Shepherds

Ask most any Catholic how the church chooses the pope – ask most anyone, for that matter – and they’ll probably give you a pretty accurate account of how it goes: The pope dies (or, these days, resigns), and all the cardinals rush to Rome. They gather in private to talk about who the next pope might be while the media speculate in public. Then they shut themselves in the Sistine Chapel and in full cardinalatial regalia, they cast votes, burning ballots with black smoke until there is a winner, in which case, poof! White smoke and “Habemus Papam!” and a new guy in a white cassock on the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Joys and hopes, or griefs and anxieties, depending on who emerges.

Now, ask even a fairly savvy, Mass-going Catholic how their own bishop was chosen and you’ll likely be greeted with a quizzical look, some hemming and hawing and, ultimately, a shrug.

That’s not a knock on Mary or Joe Catholic. That’s an indictment of the system, and it’s a central lesson of the recent, much-discussed report on the rise and scandalous fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In an exhaustive, 450-page document dump on the career of one of the most prominent American churchmen of recent decades, there are obviously any number of episodes to shock our sensibilities and many lessons to learn.

But what may be unique about this report, amid all the various studies and grand jury investigations of this era of abuse, is that it draws back the curtain on the sausage-making factory of episcopal appointments – the lobbying and back-biting, money spread like fertilizer and orthodoxy used like campaign buttons. I think we need to remember this lesson and use it to press for genuine reforms in the selection of bishops.

It’s a recondite process, by design. The church often uses secrecy to signal sacrality, as if there is some divine mystery to choosing bishops that ordinary folk cannot fathom. Hardly. Secrecy is not the same as confidentiality; too often, as the McCarrick report shows, it’s simply a cover to let the powers-that-be game a system that’s not terribly systematized.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a page on their website outlining the various steps, but the best explainers I have read on how bishops are chosen are by Cindy Wooden at Catholic News Service and Ricardo da Silva, S.J., at America magazine. They walk the reader through the way that bishops early on identify potential episcopal talent among their priests, and how questionnaires are sent to certain clerics to solicit their opinions on candidates when a vacancy comes open. Sometimes lay people will be consulted, but no one knows how often or who, or even how many. Maybe two dozen people are asked, but it’s anyone’s guess.

Few even know what is on the questionnaire, which is secret and changes depending on what the pope at the time is looking for. Under John Paul II, questions of “orthodoxy” were paramount; tick those boxes and it didn’t always matter if you were a good pastor or a decent administrator, or any of the other attributes that would make for an effective bishop. The top three candidates are then put in a list called a terna that is forwarded by the nuncio of that country to the Roman Curia and the Congregation for Bishops. That is the curial department that vets candidates for Latin-rite dioceses, which includes the vast majority of dioceses in the U.S. (The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples vets bishop candidates for dioceses in mission territories and the Congregation for Eastern Churches screens nominees who are generally sent by synods of local church leaders Eastern-rite dioceses.)

Members of those congregations meet regularly to discuss candidates, list them in order of preference and then forward that list to the pope, who can go with the recommended pick, or choose anyone from the terna, or send it back and tell them to start over. That’s the platonic ideal. In real life, as the McCarrick report shows, curial officials or papal secretaries can intervene to pick a favorite or block an opponent, and a process that can lead to a wise choice can just as often wind up choosing a dud. No one will ever know why. Bishops regularly have no idea why they were picked, or even that they were in the running for a diocese. The process can take months, or years. Or a few days if it’s considered urgent.

Moreover, while the Vatican likes to cloak the selection process in the mantle of “tradition,” the current system wasn’t even codified until a century ago. Bishops – like popes – have been chosen in any number of ways over the centuries, from acclamation by the crowd to election by clergy to a decree by the local ruler. The Apostles chose Judas’ successor by lots. Moreover, elements of almost all these traditions still exist in various places.

The point is that nothing is set in stone and it’s well past time for the episcopal selection process to undergo an overhaul. The da Silva story in America magazine has a good discussion of some of the best recommendations, many of which have been debated most intently – and with almost zero effect – in the two decades since the clergy sex abuse crisis intensified.

None of this would be revolutionary. The pope would still have the final say, but there would be a much broader consultation and a much more transparent and comprehensible process. The point is not to figure out how to deal with a bishop like McCarrick once his perfidy is discovered, but to stop someone like that from becoming a bishop in the first place. It’s not that hard, and there were enough red flags in McCarrick’s career that any reasonable vetting system would have asked enough direct questions to stop his appointment.

Whatever reforms are eventually made, and let us pray reforms are coming, the principle that ought to guide the selection of bishops is the one that has guided the papacy of Pope Francis: synodality. This does not mean a series of primaries or a nominating convention, but a process of ongoing listening that identifies the needs of a diocese, and not just the needs of the Catholics of that diocese. Remember that a year before the Synod on Young People in 2018, the Vatican used an online survey to solicit input from youth around the world, no matter their religion or faith or lack thereof. The Vatican wanted to know what young people were thinking and what they wanted to see from the Catholic Church, and to let that inform their discussions.

The same principle should guide the selection of a bishop, which is also a question of asking ourselves what a bishop is for. A truly evangelical church shouldn’t be looking only for a manager to oversee an institution, but a missionary to build up a flock.

Will some episcopal egos be bruised in a more open process? Probably. But cardinals who finish as runners-up in a conclave seem to survive the ignominy just fine. If the Catholic Church can elect the Bishop of Rome in a manner so public that it inspires endless cable series and papal potboilers, then we should be confident enough to undertake the more mundane but equally important task of choosing our local ordinary with at least as much transparency, if a tad less drama.


David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 


The Other Pandemic

While the coronavirus pandemic besieges our world, the response to it brings into relief another, even more insidious, contagion. A blatant repudiation of facts has infected populations worldwide, spreading a disease of lies, a denial of reality. Significant numbers, albeit in minority, deny the severity and deadly consequences of COVID-19. This latter pandemic has been fueled by sectors within the Christian community and by aspects of Christian tradition. The COVID pandemic has illuminated another virulence that destroys an individual’s willingness to recognize the peril unleashed by denying realities. 

We see an example of this disease in the United States, where the world wished for is treated as the world that is. The presidentially promoted claim of a fraudulent election result challenges facts. Evidence is meaningless in the face of insistence on a fabricated narrative, based in a self-gratifying ideology. 

This type of thinking can also be seen in the negative reaction of certain Catholics, and others, to the reported statement of Pope Francis concerning the treatment of members of the LGBTQ community, specifically in relation to civil unions. The response belies reality. Pope Francis is stating a straightforward fact: those who follow the path of Christ must respect, be open to and treat with dignity all human beings, in the diverse forms in which we exist. The Pope asks us to be Christ in the world, as it is, rather than simply citing a metaphysical absolute.

The disease manifests when the facts of the sexual abuse crisis in our church are denied “because it’s just not possible,” because the church is sinless.

Often, the underlying problem is presented as a struggle between those who hold to spurious claims or to science. As Christians, I suggest the alternative to spurious claims is not simply the facts of science, but being open to reality: the world as it is. It is about being a realist who lives with hope. When we look at the gospel stories, the gospel witness of Jesus Christ, we see a man who dealt with people as they were, in the fullest sense. He knew who he was dealing with; he recognized the woman caught in sin; he also recognized the crowd wanting to stone her. He responded with dignity to all human beings. He embraced the lepers, even though his society said they were to be shunned. He spoke to the Samaritan woman and honored her despite his society’s and his religion’s taboos. It is that example of facing reality, of embracing the world as it is, that brings healing, love, acceptance, that we should follow today.

This is our challenge. It is the necessary response to the pandemic. It is not about my rights, but about whether I care about my brother and sister. Pope Francis’ statement about nonheterosexual civil unions was not about sacraments or Christian doctrine; it was saying that we have a profound Christian obligation to look at each other with love, compassion and understanding; to respect the dignity of every human being.

Currently, as the world looks to possible vaccinations to save us from COVID, we need to look to reality through the example of Christ, to save us from the ravages of self-serving refusals to acknowledge the existence of injustices to humanity and the natural world. As Francis describes in Fratelli Tutti, we have failed to recognize that the grace of God is not about the possibility for me to achieve great wealth or acclaim, the power and privilege that Daniel Rober spoke of in last week’s blog. It is about my ability to be with those in need. It is about me recognizing that I have both something to give and something to learn from those who are marginalized in our societies. We must walk with each other and not just with the one who makes me feel good. The other includes every other, regardless of whether I approve of their lifestyle or whether I think they are deserving.

As Christians, we need to address the pandemic of fabricated realities that wraps itself in dogma but denies the Word of God that calls us to live the gospel, to embrace the forgotten, neglected, condemned. We are broken as communities, as countries, as a civil society—not because of some absolute metaphysical transgression, but because we fail to embrace out sister and brother, as Christ has embraced us. Through love I transform myself, my heart, my vision, to see that God in me is God in every other. It’s not about me; it’s about us.


Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.