Are The Bishops Sorry At All?

A psychiatrist I know was asked to take over for a month a hospital ward for child-abusing priests. Good Catholic that he was, he expected to encounter a group of humble and contrite men. He was astonished to discover that they felt neither guilt nor sorrow. Rather, they denied everything.

I think some bishops are like that too. They may express verbal apologies. They certainly are sorry that they have attracted unfavorable media attention and that they have to pay a lot of money to the victims. However they do not seem to have any sense of the suffering of the victims nor any real guilt that they were personally responsible for this suffering; that they have, as the moral theology books put it, cooperated in evil.

How can one have been guilty of so many objectively mortal sins and not break down in pain? Why don't they rush off to monasteries to expiate? The point seems to be that bishops don't commit mortal sins, only the laity and priests do.

Thus when the report of the Massachusetts grand jury appeared, the two bishops on Long Island, products of Cardinal Bernard Law's chancery, acted just like the abusers: They denied all responsibility. The report said that the archdiocese had to choose between protecting the Roman Catholic Church and protecting children, and it chose the path of secrecy. This key point seemed to establish that the two bishops were part of the high-level secrecy that covered up "for the good of the Church." It is apparently not a sin to lie "for the good of the Church.

The Church's pathological addiction to secrecy is age old. The leaders who (try to) sustain the culture of secrecy have forgotten the dictum of the Founder, "That which is whispered in the closets will be proclaimed from the housetops." Unless and until the Church from the highest levels down to the parish rectory abandons its propensity to cover up, to stonewall and to lie, it will never achieve the transparency that is essential to the recovery of credibility.

Reading the Massachusetts report is a painful experience : horror, abuse, dishonesty, corruption, sin. Moreover, if legal agencies in other jurisdictions had pursued similar grand jury investigations of the last sixty years, they would have found many similar horror stories. Fortunately some dioceses began cleaning up their policies since 1990. If Cardinal Law has adopted in Boston the reforms proposed by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago instead of opposing them, he would still be archbishop of Boston, and the attorney general of Massachusetts would never have convened a grand jury.

The Church is not yet out of the woods. Some diocese continue to be caught up in a culture of secrecy and denial. Thus, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said of Boston, "Faced with both the history of pervasive and prolonged abuse, the archdiocese needlessly delayed in adopting new policies, and the policy adopted remains deficient. The archdiocese has yet to demonstrate a commitment to children that is proportionate to the harm it has caused for decades."

Chancery office cultures of secrecy and denial, particularly as represented by canon lawyers and civil lawyers, are not easy to change, even when a bishop : especially a new bishop : wants to change them. Till the very end, it would seem, Bishop O'Brien of Phoenix listened to the vetoes of his lawyers. Archbishop Sean O'Malley, the new archbishop of Boston, has his work cut out for him if he wants to change the culture of the Boston chancery.

It remains to be seen how many dioceses will honestly report to the lay commission reviewing the implementation of the Dallas reforms from a year ago. Preliminary indications are somewhat reassuring. However if the Church is not willing to endure such supervision for years to come, the old culture of denial and secrecy is likely to return, since it still dominates the Vatican.

Moreover it must be said that some of the appointments of new bishops in the last couple of years do not suggest that the Vatican is inclined to choose men who are likely to break out of the constraints of this pervasive culture. Rather, they seem to be the kind of men who believe that what is whispered in the closets can ever leak to media people who are on the housetops shouting about the failures of the Church.

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