Volume > Issue > The Catholic Bishops & the Crisis of 2002

The Catholic Bishops & the Crisis of 2002


By Kenneth D. Whitehead | April 2003
Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who writes frequently on Catholic Church affairs. His most recent book is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church (Ignatius).

Last year turned out to be quite a year for the Catholic Church in the U.S. Clerical and episcopal wrongdoing subjected the Church to unprecedented exposés and even outright attacks in the media. Rumblings of deep discontent and even near rebellion on the part of some of the Catholic faithful were also heard, probably again on an unprecedented scale. There is evidence that contributions have also fallen off, even to Catholic charitable causes. Many of the faithful are not just unhappy; they are worried and disturbed, and with good reason.

Hardly any defense of the Church hierarchy is really possible, since the wrongdoing on which all the exposés and attacks were based — and against which the rumblings were directed and about which so many of the faithful are disturbed — has proved to be only too well founded in almost every case. The Catholic bishops have been thoroughly humiliated in public, and, under intense media pressure, have been forced to make hasty decisions regarding their own governance of the Church.

It is probably safe to say that we now know what it takes to get a response from the formerly almost wholly insular U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB): Get the Boston Globe to expose Church scandals on a scale that causes all the other media to join the pack, ferreting out more of the same in further exposés. The whole business will obviously be greatly magnified if sex is involved.

Much as some might like to hope that the unpleasantness is now behind us, we are periodically reminded by new revelations that there may be more, perhaps considerably more, yet to come. At year’s end, in December, following further revelations of cover-ups of priestly misdeeds, the long embattled Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston finally had to step down. Cardinal Law was the ninth American bishop to step down since 1990 in connection with a sex scandal, and the fourth in the course of 2002. Also, in December the California bishops were obliged to remind the faithful throughout the state that, owing to a lifting of the statute of limitations by the state legislature, there will be more lawsuits with perhaps ruinous financial settlements to follow. December also saw the formal admission by the diocese of Manchester, N.H., that authorities had sufficient evidence to find the diocese guilty of child endangerment, and, as of this writing, pressure continues to build to force Bishop John B. McCormack to resign. There may yet be other such cases.

However these and other cases play out, we cannot forget that the net effect of all the scandals has already been extremely damaging to the Church. Recovery will not be easy. Although defenders of the Church point to the numerically small percentage of priests involved in the gravely immoral acts that have been reported, the fact is that any Catholic priest involved in any such act at any time damages the Church and represents a shipwreck for faith. The Church is not excused just because her record is no worse or perhaps not even as bad as some other institutions. Even one case of clerical sex abuse is one case too many. Priests are ordained to act in persona Christi, literally as agents of Christ Himself. With them there cannot be any “minor” offenses against the virtue of chastity; and although forgiveness following true repentance must always remain part of any truly Christian “solution,” grave sins committed by those ordained to the sacramental service of God still cry to Heaven and must be expiated. In one sense, with all its public exposés, society at large is simply forcing the Church to return to and live by her own profession of faith.

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