That problem has intensified division among U.S. Catholics, and diminished any sense in the U.S. of the moral authority of bishops, and of the pope.
Of course, the problem is not really an “American problem,” even if it is often described that way in Rome. Open questions remain about the handling of serial sexual abuse in Chile, which point to serious breakdowns of the Church’s system of reporting and accountability.
And the alleged mishandling of allegations against the now-deceased English Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor seems to demonstrate that even when processes are put in place, without a culture of responsibility, integrity, and accountability, clericalism and institutionalism can stand in the way of justice.
In the meantime, many American bishops have moved on from waiting for a Vatican response. They’ve hired prosecutors and judges to investigate their files and their policies. They’ve expressed openness to investigation from civil authorities.
A source close to the USCCB has told CNA that the dioceses where McCarrick served have also requested assistance in their own investigations from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But even if that request is granted, those investigations, at least presently, remain distinct from the Vatican’s review.
The U.S. bishops’ conference has announced as many preventative measures as it can, while waiting for its November meeting and still pressing for a full Vatican investigation.
“Transparency is the right path. People forgive the sin more than the cover-up,” Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles said in Rome last week. American bishops seem to have understand that the spectre of a cover-up will not soon be forgiven, and many are doing what they can to make things transparent.
Whether their efforts will be enough also remains to be seen.
It is worth noting the stakes of this crisis.
Americans have made much of the idea that bishops have lost much of their moral authority because of the sexual abuse crisis; bishops and priests have often said publicly that they have lost the trust of lay Catholics, and apologized, to varying degrees of effect, for that.
But the danger is that bishops perceived to have lost their moral authority will also be judged to have lost the authority of their offices, most especially their governing authority.
Consider the case of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who has been among those bishops facing the most persistent criticism.
Cupich drew serious criticism in August when he argued, or appeared to argue, that investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and episcopal corruption would be a “rabbit-hole”, and that the pope’s energies would be better spent addressing immigration and climate change. He said he’d been misinterpreted, and directed his priests to read from their pulpits a letter of in his defense. His explanation did not have its desired effect, and, in fact, seemed to compound the anger many Catholics had expressed toward him.
Shortly thereafter, a Chicago priest and a Colombian priest working in Chicago were arrested in Miami for performing a sex act in public view, in close proximity to a playground. The timing could not have been worse for Cupich. While their behavior was not Cupich’s fault, it came less than a month after Cupich said that the issue of homosexuality among priests was a “diversion that gets away from the clericalism that’s much deeper as a part of this problem.”
A petition began circulating among some Catholics calling for his resignation. It now has more than 20,000 signatories.
Criticism of Cupich is set against the obvious and visible rift in the Church over the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, a letter from Pope Francis on the pastoral care of families and married couples. To its supporters, Amoris expresses Pope Francis’ prioritization of mercy, within the context of orthodox but developing Catholic moral teaching. To its critics, Amoris is confusing at best, and seems to endorse practices that defy the conventions of Catholic doctrine and Christian anthropology. The disagreement over that issue has been polarizing, and a source of confusion, frustration, and resentment for Catholics on both sides.
Cupich has figured prominently into that fight as well. A vocal supporter of Amoris, he has said the Church is making a transformational “paradigm shift,” and introduced an understanding of the relationship between conscience and doctrine that many Catholics perceive to be relativism. He has hosted a series of closed-door seminars for select bishops on Amoris, at which theologians and canonists sharing his view were invited to present.
In that context, his emphasis on pastoral outreach to LGBT couples has been treated with suspicion - if not hostility - by some Catholics, who fear the cardinal intends a broad repudiation of Catholic sexual morality.
Amidst all of that chaos, in the middle of the “summer of hell,” Fr. Paul Kalchik found a banner in his sacristy, which featured a cross imposed upon a rainbow flag symbolizing gay rights. He says the flag once hung in his Church’s sanctuary, under the leadership of a pastor he says was notoriously gay.
Kalchik is a survivor of sexual abuse. He is also a long-time pastor, and an advocate for both the unborn and the homeless who live in his neighborhood. Cupich is his bishop.
Kalchik decided to burn the flag, in a public ceremony, at the end of September. He announced to his parish that he would do so. Cupich, likely thinking that such a public display would sow further chaos in the Church, had his staff instruct Kalchik not to burn the flag, the Chicago archdiocese says.
In a recent interview, Kalchik said he was told only that he could not hold the particular public ceremony he was planning. He said he did not hold that ceremony. The flag was burned at a different time, by his parishioners, in his presence, he said. The archdiocese disputed that account.
The facts are not clear, but it seems the priest was subsequently disciplined by his bishop, and apparently ordered to seek counseling at an inpatient residential treatment facility, which he has not done.
Kalchik has been hailed as a hero in some circles, cast as a kind of martyr, a resistance figure praised by those who say, whatever the facts, that he rightly defied an unjust order from his bishop. His story is likely to spur other such stories.
That could have long-lasting effect. There is a difference between criticizing bishops, and perhaps even calling for their resignation, and denying outright their authority to govern their priests. But if the sexual abuse crisis spurs a populist movement of Catholics romanticizing priests, religious, or even lay communities who defy the governance decisions of diocesan bishops, chaos could ensue.
Earlier this year, many commentators predicted that the crisis would lead to a failure on the part of bishops to respect the rights of priests accused of misconduct. It might. But it seems like it might also lead to a widespread failure to respect the rights, and prerogatives, of diocesan bishops. That could foster chaos, and catalyze serious and formal divisions within the Catholic Church in the United States.
So what will happen? An apostolic visitation is unlikely. The Vatican’s actions will probably not satisfy discontented and frustrated American Catholics. Those Catholics might continue to be criticized, cast as adversaries of the pope. Some of them will continue to encourage the rejection of episcopal and pontifical authority.
Who might address this crisis?
The pope might still order an apostolic visitation, if it becomes clear that the bishops requesting one are not his adversaries or detractors.
Priests, religious, and lay Catholics can encourage cool heads and ecclesial unity, even while insisting on real investigations, transparency, and cultural change.
And the U.S. bishops, could, at their November meeting, do much to heal the fracturing landscape of American Catholicism. It remains to be seen how the bishops will conduct themselves at that gathering. But while Vatican officials say the pope needs more time, it seems to many that the time for American bishops to act is drawing nigh.