When four whistleblowing priests in Scotland went public over the sexual hypocrisy of Cardinal Keith O’Brien in 2013, it resulted in his being prevented from attending the conclave that elected Pope Francis and ultimately in his removal as leader of the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. I was one of the whistleblowers. When we sought a meeting with O’Brien’s successor, I remember keenly his obviously rehearsed instruction to us: the Vatican’s view was, “We are done here.” In reality, the removal of the cardinal was the beginning, not the end, of what was to become an important change in the way Church authorities deal with the malfeasance of high-ranking members of the hierarchy, including previously untouchable cardinals. The Catholic Church in Scotland—and later in the United States with the Cardinal McCarrick case—felt the power of whistleblowing in action. But what, exactly, is whistleblowing? How does it help the Church? And what can the Church do to make sure it has the proper effect?
As a whistleblower, I can attest that the act itself can occasion a terrible case of imposter syndrome. You’re constantly asking yourself—because you know you are likely to be asked by others—“Who do you think you are?” There is a passage in the Book of Amos where Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, tells Amos to back off. We’ll not be having any of that stuff going on here in the royal sanctuary. Amos replies, “I was no prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets…. I was a shepherd and looked after sycamores: but it was Yahweh who took me from herding the flock.” God himself asked this of Amos. The first thing that the Church, as well as the whistleblower, must do is discern the motivation of those who speak out. In the cases of O’Brien and McCarrick, the motivation of the whistleblowers was not to “out” an elderly gay cardinal. Why would we want to do that? There are plenty of those. No, our aim was to prevent the further abuse of power by men at the head of a Church that claims to be holy.
The behavior of both men was widely known before their stories became public. Yet Church authorities had remained silent when victims brought allegations of clerical malfeasance—in our case, via sworn testimonies written to the nuncio. The degree to which papal nuncios and the Congregation of Bishops tolerated such behavior still requires investigation. But their icy silence has a purpose: it is intended to intimidate, to put victims and whistleblowers in their place. You are, from their point of view, just a keeper of sycamores.
Outside the Church such failure to respond would be completely unacceptable. It would be regarded as piling further abuse onto people who have already been traumatized. Church authorities need to adopt a universal set of standards that govern precisely when, and in what form, they will respond when allegations are made. These standards should be written with the help of lay Catholics who have experience supporting and protecting whistleblowers in secular society. If my own views were sought, I’d recommend that any Church official to whom an allegation of misconduct is sent acknowledge it within twenty-four hours and then come up with an initial plan for addressing it within three days. This would demonstrate that the allegation is of urgent importance to the Church.
I also recommend that whistleblowers feel no shame about bringing their grievances to the press when they have exhausted internal processes and met with either active resistance or indifference. Many of the faithful now recognize the internal machinations of the hierarchy and its tendency to suppress damaging revelations as akin to the omerta of organized crime gangs.
The authorities would do well to heed a presentation given by Archbishop Charles Scicluna on February 21, 2019. Though talking specifically about clerical child abuse, his comments apply more widely: “As shepherds of the Lord’s flock, we should not underestimate the need to confront ourselves with the deep wounds inflicted on victims of sex abuse by members of the clergy. They are wounds of a psychological and spiritual nature that need tending with care.”