The U.S. Catholic Bishops “Don’t Wanna Go to Rehab.”
Imagine if in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) had met. But it didn’t rebuke Weinstein. Or establish firm policies to keep such men from preying on actresses. It invited one of the studio heads who’d covered up for him the longest to speak. And it kicked the can down the road. Would it ever solve the problem of sexual exploitation? No telling. It even listened politely as a major studio head claimed that the “casting couch” amounts to “consensual relationships.”
Now imagine yourself a lifetime lover of movies, maybe even a veteran of the film industry.
That’s how Catholics feel today. Except, of course, much worse.
Will Catholic Bishops Ever Hold Each Other Accountable?
Our bishops are meeting in Baltimore. There was only one major item on the agenda. Would the U.S. bishops establish some means, any means, to punish its own errant members? Such as those who a) covered up for the sex abuse of minors? Or b) preyed on seminarians?
All this happens in the wake of the grotesque revelations about the one-time most prominent Catholic bishop in the country, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. We learned last year that he molested a young man he’d baptized as a baby. And groomed young seminarians, pressuring them to sleep in his bed. And, according to the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, many of his bishop colleagues knew all about his predation on seminarians. In fact, Vigano asserted, Pope Francis knew. But revoked the (mild) punishment which Pope Benedict had imposed on him. Even made McCarrick again a power broker in the U.S. church, and used him as a diplomat in China.
The bishops as a whole acted like an addict in deep denial.
All these issues came to a head with the drip-drip of revelations from state attorneys general. One after another has announced that he plans to investigate the church. The Pennsylvania A.G.’s report was especially shocking. It exposed patterns of cover-up going back decades. For instance, on the part of current (soon to retire) Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. One priest who created sadistic child porn on church property received a pension for a decade while he lived with a lover in Cuba. Running a gay b&b. When one of his guests murdered him, Wuerl flew him back to Pittsburgh for what onlookers have called a hero’s funeral.
More state prosecutors have piled on, demanding church documents. Pressure is building for the U.S. Department of Justice to consider a RICO investigation of U.S. bishops. That’s fitting, since some repeatedly shuffled abusive priests around the country.
Pope Francis Shuts Critics Down
In the face of all this, Pope Francis has coldly rebuked Abp. Vigano, and refused to release the documents (now in Vatican archives) that would prove or disprove his charges. Francis has compared critics of his own decisions to Satan. And he has restricted the travel and speaking engagements of bishops such as Athanasius Schneider and Cardinal Raymond Burke, who have questioned his overtures in favor of a laxer approach to sexual sins.
Some Catholics (I included) had hoped that the growing legal and financial pressure on the U.S. church would force the pope’s hand. Much of the Vatican’s money and influence is dependent on U.S. Catholics, who still attend Mass and donate much more than most other Western Catholics. Some forty percent of the U.S. bishops’ income rests, however, not on laymen’s tithes, but federal contracts serving groups such as immigrants. That money could go away, if U.S. lawmakers decide to redirect such contracts to organizations that aren’t stonewalling on child abuse allegations.
But Pope Francis stepped in at the very last minute, once bishops had already gathered. He sent an order to the bishops not to vote on any plan for reforming their ranks. They duly obeyed his order, and even defeated a toothless, symbolic motion to ask the Vatican to release the files on Cardinal McCarrick. It received less than 40 percent of the votes:
The motion fails. Some shocked murmurs in the room.
— Christine Rousselle 💁🏻♀️ (@crousselle) November 14, 2018
One of the worst cover-up artists, ex-Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, actually addressed the proceedings. To pontificate, not to atone for his previous sins and crimes, which apparently included perjury. Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago arose to insist that bishops not lump in sexual harassment and predation on seminarians with child abuse, since the former might include “consensual” relationships. As if “consensual” sodomy between bishops and future priests were somehow … not a problem for Christians.
A Victim Speaks. Are Bishops Listening?
Meanwhile, across town, at a lay gathering organized by the whistle-blowing Catholic journalists of Church Militant, someone very different rose to speak. Giving his full name for the first time in public was James Grein, whom ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick baptized as a baby, then molested at age 15. McCarrick is still an archbishop, and still receives a pension, free housing, and Cadillac medical insurance at Church expense. Until last year, he ran the Papal Foundation, steering tens of millions of dollars from earnest U.S. donors to pay off shady papal debts in Italy. Right now, churchmen’s main concern seems to be to keep him away from reporters.
Below is some news coverage of Church Militant’s rally, including victim James Grein’s statement. (Footage of whole event here.)
You might have thought that the U.S. bishops would have invited James Grein to speak. And Mahony to be silent. That they’d have sternly rebuked Cupich for holding Catholic seminaries to a lower standard than Hollywood movie studios. That they would have put some pressure on Pope Francis, using their own considerable financial muscle.
That’s what I would have thought, as a Catholic, until quite recently, too.
We Can Stop Any Time We Want
Instead, the bishops as a whole (with some worthy individual outliers) acted like an addict in deep denial. Who claims that he has “hit bottom” and changed his ways, but clearly hasn’t. He can’t. He’s caught in a profound, self-destructive tailspin. His friends all are fellow addicts, or else hapless enablers. He can’t and won’t stop until he has burned every bridge, emptied each bank account, and found himself homeless and friendless. Then, maybe then, he will turn to a Higher Power.
It seems like that’s the script for the U.S. church now. I wish it could have been different. I wish that more gorgeous, historic urban churches built by immigrants’ donated pennies in past centuries wouldn’t end up being sold to serve as discos or mosques. That more Catholic schools like the one I went to wouldn’t close, more parishes wouldn’t get shuttered. That more kids wouldn’t get abused by priests whose bishops still don’t get it. And more young men seeking to follow God’s call to the priesthood wouldn’t be confused, corrupted, or run off by seminaries that have turned into gay bath houses. That the Church’s reputation, that of its many good priests and bishops, wouldn’t keep getting dragged through the filth by gay cabals and corrupt, worldly prelates.
But wishing won’t make it so. If this meeting proves to be a turning point, then we’ll see, looking back, an historic missed opportunity. A fork in the road, and we took the wrong one. I’m not sure how long American society, government, and law will go on cutting slack for the U.S. Catholic church. Trusting it with hundred-million dollar federal contracts. Recognizing the Vatican diplomatically. Taking bishops seriously when they address American politics. Accepting Catholics (as once it didn’t) in the mainstream of faiths, to be trusted with (for instance) seats on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The bishops, at Pope Francis’ stern insistence, may have irrevocably set the Church in the U.S. on a stony, tortuous course through Mordor. Only God knows what it will look like, how small and battered its remnant will be, when it finishes hitting bottom, and finally turns toward the Light.