Bishops, Not Altar Boys

What Would Real Collegiality Look Like?

Hardly anyone had expected that Pope Benedict XVI would confront the scandal of clerical sexual abuse in the direct way he did during his recent U.S. visit, referring to it four times in five days. In another development that had not been anticipated, he met some of the victims, and won them over. Other victims, inevitably, were less sanguine. It was all “spin,” they feared. Where was the substance to follow?

Some Vatican officials have tended to pin the blame for the scandal on English-speaking countries, but clerical power and secrecy, keys to the sexual-abuse phenomenon, are the same everywhere. After the pope ended his U.S. foray, Austrian media were asking why he had not been similarly frank in his visit there last year.

It will take decades for the church to recover. Whatever their prescription of cures for the disease, conservatives and progressives in the United States are agreed on one thing—the bishops failed. During his visit, Pope Benedict quoted the verdict of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, with which he plainly agreed, that the crisis “was sometimes very badly handled.”

The sexual-abuse scandal is one symptom of the problems afflicting the church. In the wake of the American disaster, lay protest groups such as Voice of the Faithful have argued for a new style of episcopal leadership. They want bishops who listen and are inclusive in their...

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About the Author

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.