Cardinal George on the John Jay report
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the recent past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was in New York last Thursday to talk about his latest book, God in Action: How Living with God in Faith Can Help Us Meet the Challenges Facing Us Today. I sat down to speak with him in a conversation that ranged over a variety of topics, and we’ll have the rest of that interview in the near future.
But I asked him about the John Jay report, released a day before, and want to share his responses given the immediacy of the topic. The exchange speaks for itself, though I thought it notable that it seems the bishops will be talking about tightening up review board procedures when they gather for their spring meeting June 15-16 in Seattle:
Q: Have you read the study?
A: I’ve read the executive summary; I’ve looked at the study. I haven’t read it.
Q: What do you think of it? Do you think it rings true?
A: Yes, I think it rings true. It’s not a whitewash. It shows where the bishops were derelict in attending to the full scope of the tragedy. I think what it points to is in the beginning years of this – I wasn’t a bishop when it began, I became a bishop in 1990 and there was already a sub-committee [of the USCCB] dedicated to this. They did begin the discussions in the 80s.
But what was missing, often, was the voice of the victim. They [the bishops] talked to the priests. They tried to come to terms with what had happened, more or less in the therapeutic era, treating it not just as a moral failing – they knew that – but as a psychological sickness, forgetting that there is a justice issue here, vis-à-vis the victim, who was often crushed. The longstanding consequences of this are things we are still trying to come to terms with as we try to speak to victims and help victims.
I have found that is the voice that has to be brought forward. Because when I listen to it I am always grateful and always pray for the grace of conversion to stay with that voice as the primary voice in this whole conversation. That’s new, and I think the bishops do attend to it now. I hope so. But the analysis of the years when this was most prevalent rings true to me. I was gone from this country during those years. I lived in Rome [1974-1987] and when I came back I had a sense that something had happened but I didn’t understand very well – not about this but about a lot of things.
The report hasn’t received a lot of attention, and in some ways that is surprising, unless it doesn’t say what people want it to say. Because there’s a meta-narrative in all this. It’s the usual meta-narrative: individuals harmed by institutions and authority, particularly religious authority, that is a priori oppressive. That’s a media mandate, sort of, for every story. And while there are elements of truth to that story, that’s not the whole story. Facts that don’t enforce that story, don’t corroborate it, tend not to be reported.
Q: I thought it was a very interesting report, I thought a lot of it rang true, that there was plenty in the report to discomfit left, right and center.
A: The point is it was not the bishops’ report. It was a report from a reputable research organization. So if people don’t like it they should go to the John Jay people and say, “Why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that?” We [the bishops] didn’t. I read it for the first time last week.
Q: And your sense of it, again, is that it rang true?
A: I think so, yes, sure. It opened up a certain number of areas that I wasn’t aware of.
Q: What areas?
A: I hadn’t given much thought to what is a central thesis, as I understand it, that is, the changes in the society and their repercussion on priestly discipline – the relaxation of protections for celibate living that had been taken for granted as part of priestly life for so many generations. That struck me as something I should have given more thought to. I’m grateful for that.
The researchers do talk about the bishops’ record over these past decades in terms of patterns in institutional change – comparing the church to police departments dealing with brutality, for example – which can be an explanatory thing but also a very damning thing in the sense that the church all too often acted like any other organization.
That’s right, that’s the sorry part of that kind of conclusion – we were the same as everybody else, and we shouldn’t have been. But it also points to the problem of authority in the church. When the church is a voluntary organization sociologically, as it is here, we don’t have police powers, as bishops. Charles Borromeo did when he reformed the church in Milan. [Laughs] So perhaps it was a little easier! Not that we would want that. But it [the church] is a voluntary organization.
Furthermore, the new code [of canon law] was designed to protect priests against oppressive bishops because John Paul II distrusted administrative law as an instrument for punishing people. He saw how it was misused in communist regimes where things were done legally but the law didn’t respect individuals. And so there were a lot of canonical difficulties in disciplining priests that now, in the case of this particular sin and crime, we can address more easily with the zero tolerance policy.
It took a long time, in the discussions over there [in the Vatican], to accept the principle of zero tolerance in a code that said there are reasons why this penalty shouldn’t be imposed on people even for this kind of crime because you had to look at culpability in terms of moral intention and things like that. Our laws now are very behavioral. If you did it, you’re out. We have to prove that you did it. But if you did it, you’re out, no matter what excuse or what culpability you think there might be.
Q: The John Jay report does talk about how much has been done, about the great gains made by the church in this area. But it also talks about the importance, moving forward, of bishops developing uniform policies with accountability and transparency. Do you think there are next steps that can be taken by the bishops?
A: There always are, aren’t there? But before I would want to say what they should be I’d want to consult with a lot more bishops and see what the consensus might be. Because it’s important that there be greater uniformity, obviously. We’ve learned, I suppose, that review boards are very different, sometimes, from place to place. So we should look at that, certainly, and I think we are.
But beyond that we’ll have to talk, I think. Because it’d be good to act together. This is a national problem and the more we can act together and find consensus the stronger the church will be.
Q: You also have the issue of the autonomy of bishops – you have a couple of bishops who opt out of audits, for example. Are these two things that are increasingly going to butt heads?
A: They do now. Whether increasingly, I don’t know. For example, the matter of the eparchies [territories of the Eastern Catholic Churches]. The eparchies sometimes extend across the whole nation. They go from state to state to state to state, with different laws. To put together a lot of the infrastructure that the charter does call for in that kind of situation would be extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily expensive. And the eparchies are poor. So a lot of it is just simply administrative. So they simply piggy back – I think this is something the report doesn’t recognize – they’ll piggy back on the Latin diocese, depending on where they are.
So while they’re not the primary agent, I think it’s being attended to, in some cases anyway.