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A Failing Episcopal Establishment

We are witnessing the collapse of the episcopal establishment in the United States.

In one sense, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report tells us nothing we didn’t already know. But it spells things out in inescapable detail, in a series of case studies complete with diocesan memos and letters from bishops.

The lurid details of the actions of predatory priests are troubling. But still more troubling are the evasions of responsibility by those in charge—including, in some instances, secular authorities, who in the 1960s tended to cooperate with Church leaders in keeping things quiet. Well into the 1980s, bishops and their staffs were still employing the old techniques: shuttling malefactors to remote dioceses, stonewalling civil authorities, and working hard to “avoid scandal,” which means keeping secrets and minimizing accountability.

One case study involving a Pittsburgh priest makes a damning fact clear. Memos reproduced by the Grand Jury Report strongly suggest that, but for the public uproar after the priest scandal broke in Boston in 2002, the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, then overseen by Donald Wuerl (now Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C.), would have continued its policy of treating sexual crimes “internally.” This process may have protected the Church’s reputation in the short run. It may have shielded the fraternity of the priesthood and the men accused of sexual abuse. But again and again, this internal process failed to protect children.

Recent revelations about Theodore McCarrick prepared me for reading the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. We’re still learning sordid facts about McCarrick’s sexual career, as well as his financial dealings. As has been the case with priestly abuse, the donations of the faithful may have ended up securing confidential settlements that protected McCarrick’s career and allowed his brother bishops to continue looking the other way.

However the mess is parsed, the larger truth is plain: The current culture of the American episcopacy makes even good men incapable of rooting out the corruption in their midst. One can’t help but cringe while reading the Grand Jury Report, the way one does in a car spinning slowly off the highway.

In memo after memo, bishops and their assistants downplay and cover up misdeeds, and evade doing the hard but right thing. I am increasingly certain that any number of further secrets are yet to be exposed: religious orders dominated by homosexual networks, seminaries rife with sexual exploitation, payouts and expenditures meant to forestall the day of reckoning, and financial corruption in various other forms.

A close friend told me that he can’t decide which is his dominant emotion: contempt or despair. Contempt strikes me as more reasonable. As a body, the American episcopacy is feckless. Of course it includes many good men. But they are paralyzed by “collegiality,” an ecclesial virtue that has been captured by mediocrity. In light of recent events, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops would very happily put itself in the hands of secular lawyers—the safe, unassailable “best practice.”

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