Surveying the battlefield of the sex-abuse scandal, I have come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church in the United States will never be the same. I said that to the bishops in Dallas on June 13 (see: In the weeks since, and as I have thought more deeply about the consequences, I have become even more convinced that the first six months of 2002 have presented U.S. Catholics with a turning point in our history. It is important for us to acknowledge that, and to calculate what such a turn may require. As historians are fond of saying about certain periods (for example, Germany in 1848), X reached a turning point and failed to turn. We could fail to negotiate this turning point.

Something essential has been lost: simply put, basic trust in the bishops. By that I mean a form of quiescent confidence that those who lead do so with integrity and to good purpose. Such a loss at this point in time seems surprising, doesn’t it? After years, even decades of insistent criticism from Catholics, left, right, and center, the tensions generated by the reforms of Vatican II and the counter-reforms of this papacy have not been resolved. Yet neither has this criticism significantly reshaped lay attitudes toward episcopal authority. Catholics may not like many things about the man who governs their diocese, or his decisions-a sentiment often shared by priests-but, in reality, this has had little effect on the day-to-day life of the local church. True, some Catholics drift to other churches; others leave altogether. Some Catholics appeal to Rome over the heads of local leaders; others quietly ignore the bishops’ preachments. Many on both left and right find congenial niches in which to worship, focusing their religious lives on the small church rather than the large one. In some measure, their Catholic identity held, including living within a hierarchical structure without bothering much about it.

How have the events since January changed this passive acquiescence in episcopal authority? How has the furor and shame over what now constitutes the second sex-abuse scandal precipitated the nearly complete erosion of trust Catholics have had in their bishops? Without doubt, the fact that there is a second scandal contributes to the collapse of confidence. Most Catholics thought that the first scandal (1985-93) had put in place rules and review boards that removed a priest who abused children, that their bishop had handled the problem. Some, of course, had. Even Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, where the abuse question re-emerged in January, seemed at first to be dealing with old cases. There soon came to light, however, other subjects previously unnoticed by most people. Especially: What happened to abusing priests who could no longer serve in parishes? We still don’t know the complete answer to this and many other questions. Perhaps the commission, established in June by the bishops, will eventually tell us. (Nor should we forget that further information about other actors in this drama-plaintiffs’ lawyers, treatment centers, physicians, and the media-may modify our view of the scandal.)

In the meantime, how does this add up to a loss of trust in the bishops? And what should be done about it?

First, most of us trust our leaders until we have compelling reasons not to. Despite both great and petty disagreements with the specific decisions of their ordinary, most Catholics did not question a bishop’s authority to make decisions. Now we find that some bishops seriously abused that authority in lying to laypeople and priests as well as misleading their fellow bishops, for example, in recommending Paul Shanley for service, as Cardinal Law did to other dioceses.

Second, some critics would argue that our trust in the bishops has long been misplaced. And yet as we look back, what choice was there? It was a necessary trust: there were no real mechanisms for knowing or analyzing why or how bishops made decisions. Nor could there be effective lay involvement in basic decisions about planning, allocation of resources, or assignment of pastors, much less decisions about responding to sex-abuse victims, handling sexual predators, or making financial settlements. There are still no mechanisms for taking part in decision making-none but the cudgel of withholding funds. The commission appointed by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops’ conference, and headed by Governor Frank Keating (R-Okla.) is limited to matters of sexual abuse and subject to the readiness of each diocesan bishop to report to the national office that the commission will establish. But what of the men bishops ordain? Does this need more oversight from priests and laypeople? What of the men the Vatican chooses to name bishops? Does this need more input and scrutiny from a diocese? What of the funds given to the church without the need for an accounting, or more to the point, the lack in most dioceses of a published, audited financial statement? What of a bishop’s own propensity, as corporation sole, to misuse or misappropriate church funds? We have assumed our bishops are honest. Can we reasonably continue to make such an assumption?

Third, the litmus test that the Vatican applies to episcopal candidates makes many duplicitous. Don’t some find the ban on artificial contraception unreasonable? Doesn’t the church’s about-face on the death penalty make threats to politicians who favor it seem facile? There are certainly more than a few bishops at odds with the Vatican’s pronouncements on other Christian denominations and other faith traditions, on liturgical translations, on the roles of women in ministry and administrative positions. The list goes on. And yet, who hears in public words of doubt or misgiving from a bishop? They do not say what they think; nor do they address priests or lay people as if they too were troubled by at least some of these matters. Today, their silence seems one more cause for mistrust. Decades of double standards and forms of doublethink have eroded Catholics’ trust in their bishops, and the sex-abuse scandal has finally made that loss of trust complete.

It is too soon to talk about restoring a sense of trust (after all, there is probably more hard news to come). In any case, the kind of trust that now seems required is not the kind that has been lost. Even if that basic trust I described above was dictated by the lack of choice, it would be irresponsible for any Catholic to return to a quiescent form of trust that simply relied on a bishop to do the right thing. A mature and authentic form of trust must emerge. We all make mistakes; we all commit sins; we all are capable of malfeasance and even malevolence. Nonetheless, the life of the church, of communities, organizations, and institutions goes on-and we are all responsible for ensuring that it does. As we now painfully understand, that cannot be the responsibility of priests and bishops alone; it is the responsibility of the whole church. Any adult Catholic who does not accept that, after this overwhelming scandal, seems as reckless as the bishops who allowed it to happen. How do we begin?

A good deal has been written about the need for accountability and transparency in diocesan transactions, financial and managerial (see, Mary Jo Bane, March 8, 2002). This is a good place to start because these are mechanisms widely understood (if not always observed) in our society and widely in place, including in other churches. We could learn from others. At the same time, we must also come to a deeper understanding of the cultural and political ethos of a hierarchical church, in order to both respect that ethos and reshape it. Many lay people and priests are weary of being told we are not a democracy (though it was illuminating to watch the bishops vote and debate their Charter in Dallas), nor are we a constitutional monarchy (though it is always interesting to have the canonists pipe up with limitations on papal or episcopal power). Adult Catholics with a mature sense of trust surely ought to be able to learn how to bring order and good governance to their local church without denying the central importance of papal and episcopal authority-even when that authority is sometimes abused. Sadly, Rome is likely to balk at even these modest reforms. Nonetheless, the U.S. bishops, if they want to regain the respect and trust of their people, will have to stand up to such intransigence.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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Published in the 2002-07-12 issue: View Contents
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