Will Pope Francis Repeat American Bishops’ Mistakes on Sex Abuse?

By Christopher Manion Published on May 22, 2018

Last week Pope Francis made history when he met with the bishops of Chile. It brought to mind a similar meeting sixteen years ago, when Pope John Paul II met with every cardinal from the United States. The outcomes were as different as they were significant.

Both countries were in an uproar over allegations of clerical sex abuse and cover-ups. Both meetings abounded in prayer, profound apologies, and papal admonitions for reform and repentance. But Pope Francis took an additional step, a vital one.

After meeting with Pope Francis, every Catholic bishop in Chile offered the Holy Father his resignation. After meeting with Pope John Paul II, the cardinals returned to the United States, chastened but still in office.

Pope Francis had already visited Chile in January. He was so convinced by the bishops’ excuses that he called the accusations of abuse “calumny.” He even blamed “the leftists, who are the ones who put this thing together.”

But after he returned to Rome, he decided to send Vatican investigators to Chile. They returned with a far different story. Chile’s bishops had lied and destroyed evidence. The Chilean people were in an uproar.

Admonitions were not enough. Every bishop in Chile resigned.

Pope John Paul II and the American Cardinals

In January 2002, the American scandals erupted. In April, USCCB officials told the Vatican not to worry. Our bishops could handle the situation themselves, they insisted.

Days later, Pope John Paul summoned every American cardinal to the Vatican. He could have demanded serious changes, but he didn’t. Nor did he condemn the profound malfeasance of America’s hierarchy. Instead, he accepted the plaintive excuses that they had been repeating for years. They had been misled by “clinical experts” who thought that homosexual child rape was an illness, not a crime. It wasn’t their fault.

In 2002, the American bishops voted on national television to exempt themselves from their own “zero tolerance” policy for abusers.

They had to do better, the Holy Father told the American prelates. And they went home.

The sainted pope did not ask for any resignations, not did the prelates offer theirs. Regarding prospective reforms, the beleaguered USCCB President Bishop Wilton Gregory did tell the media in Rome that “it is an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men.” But he never mentioned it again.

The USCCB met in Dallas four months later. During the proceedings, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln made a motion that the bishops vote to investigate the causes of the scandals. Not one brother bishop supported him.

Over 80% of the abuse crimes were “homosexual in nature,” but the bishops ignored the issue. Instead, they voted on national television to exempt themselves from their own “zero tolerance” policy for abusers.

Why? Only a tiny percentage of priests had been guilty of abuse. But two-thirds of bishops were guilty of enabling abusers or covering up for them.

The bishops adjourned their meeting and went back to their chanceries. They stayed in office and braced themselves for years of lawsuits, financial settlements, and scandals.

The cardinals’ April meeting with the pope was ancient history.

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U.S. Cardinals Allowed to Stay in Office

The only American bishop to quit was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, where abuse accusations were also rampant, did not offer to resign. Instead, he maneuvered. Governor Frank Keating, chairman of the bishops’ own lay oversight board, was asking too many questions. The former FBI agent was too curious about the role the bishops might have played in the scandals.

Mahony demanded that Keating resign. He did.

Cardinal Mahony wound up spending around a billion dollars to stay in office. He settled hundreds of abuse cases. Then he avoided giving sworn testimony in open court. He fought hard to thwart demands for the release of the files of abusing priests. And he even claimed that seminary records are covered by the seal of the confessional.

In January 2013, a California judge finally forced the chancery to release some 12,000 pages of those files. The statute of limitations had expired, but Mahony’s successor, Abp. José Gómez, found the revelations “brutal and painful.” In February, Gómez barred Mahony from all “administrative or public duties.”

Cardinal Mahony flouted the order, claiming that only the pope can discipline a cardinal. He bragged on Twitter that he would vote in the conclave that elected Pope Francis a month later. When he returned from Rome, he conducted public confirmations every weekend. When a reporter inquired about his brazen disobedience, the Cardinal replied, “Go home!”

Pope Francis, on the Other Hand

What can we learn from these two historic episodes?

Pope John Paul II accepted the excuses of America’s bishops. He allowed them to continue in office. Early on, Pope Francis accepted the plaintive excuses of the Chilean bishops as well. When visiting Chile in January, he rejected accusations against Juan Barros, Bishop of Osorno: “There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

If John Paul II had demanded the resignations of all the U.S. bishops, would the scandals still be going on today? We’ll never know.

But Pope Francis didn’t stop there. He sent investigators to find out the truth, and the truth was damning. Francis admitted his earlier mistake and convened last week’s meeting with all of Chile’s bishops. He advised them in advance that he expected their resignations. Unlike Bishop Gregory, Pope Francis lambasted Chilean bishops for sending to seminaries “priests suspected of active homosexuality,” as well as destroying evidence and defying canon and civil law.

Will Pope Francis Learn From the American Bishops’ Mistakes on Sex Abuse?

Why didn’t Pope John Paul follow up the American cardinals’ 2002 visit in the same fashion? Had he sent Cardinals Burke and Ratzinger for a month-long investigation in May, the USCCB’s June meeting might have rendered profoundly different results.

Instead, our beloved shepherds went home and circled the wagons.

If John Paul II had demanded the resignations of all the U.S. bishops, accepting those from the dozens who had clearly protected known criminal abusers, would the scandals still be going on today?

We’ll never know. After sixteen years, the pain and scandal caused by the abuse and cover-ups continue. They have cost billions of dollars. Tens of millions of the faithful have left the pews. In the words of USCCB’s chief of child protection, Bishop Robert Conlon of Joliet, the credibility of the U.S. hierarchy is “shredded.”

Somewhere, Sherlock Holmes told his friend, “Watson, when I say you are instructive, I mean I learn from your mistakes.”

When he deals with the bishops of Chile, will Pope Francis learn from the American hierarchy’s mistakes?

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