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an Irish archbishop doing what no American bishop has done

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 02, 2009

What would happen, do you think, if one American bishop had challenged his brothers to admit their culpability for the sex-abuse scandal? Would the sky have fallen in, if one determined bishop had stood up at that June 2002 meeting in Dallas, and said in public that some of his colleagues were morally obligated to resign?

It didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happened. To this day, we haven’t seen any American bishop say, for the record, that some of his colleagues betrayed their responsibilities so thoroughly that they can no longer be considered fit to act as successors to the Apostles.

One diocesan bishop has no power over another; Bishop X cannot require Bishop Y to resign. But he can ask him to resign; he can exhort him to resign; he can explain why resignation is the only proper option. Or, short of demanding a resignation, he can acknowledge that at a minimum Bishop Y needs to come clean, to acknowledge his guilt, and to make amends.

It hasn’t happened in the US. But something along those lines is happening right now in Ireland. Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is saying—in public, for attribution, repeatedly—that bishops who participated in a cover-up of sexual abuse should acknowledge their wrongdoing. “Everybody has to stand up and accept the responsibility for what they did,” he said. Amen to that.

Archbishop Martin isn’t naming names. He doesn’t need to; the implications of his statements are clear enough to anyone who is paying attention. For instance, there is Bishop Donal Murray, who now heads the Limerick diocese, and has said that he has “entered into a process of engagement with the people and priests of his diocese as to whether his ministry is a hindrance or help to the diocese.” Not good enough, says Archbishop Martin: “It is not enough to say this is a matter for other dioceses where they are now.” He explains: “My view is they (the bishops) should publicly come forward and answer the questions to the people where these abuses took place.”

Admitting one’s guilt, the archbishop argues, is far better than being found guilty in the court of public opinion, as the evidence piles up. Explaining his preference for bishops to come forward now, he says: “I would much prefer to be in that situation than to be hunted or pushed.”

Amen to that, too. How many times has an American bishop come forward to admit his guilt—perhaps prodded by a fellow bishop—before the facts were splashed across the headlines? The count remains at zero, I believe.

Bishops are reluctant to criticize their fellow bishops, and rightly so. But where in the Scriptures is it written that a bishop should not allow his differences with another bishop to become public? Not in the 15th chapter of Acts, certainly; not in the 2nd chapter of Galatians.

Public criticism of a colleague is an extreme measure, to be used only in extreme circumstances: when the institution is in crisis, when its credibility is in jeopardy, when revelations of corruption make it imperative to demand reform. Archbishop Martin seems to think that the Church has reached that point in Ireland. We reached it in the US nearly a decade ago. 

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: raymondfrice9926 - Dec. 16, 2009 7:45 AM ET USA

    I have been an active Catholic all my life and attend services regularly. Sometimes I get the feeling that I am running through a cemetery calling for someone to teach me how to live!!!! Raymond

  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Dec. 04, 2009 11:31 PM ET USA

    This seems to be a far wiser and more pastoral proposal than to spend a couple of million dollars to have an investigation that ultimately reveals that had Bishops acted appropriately in the authority given to them by the Church the abuse scandal would have been stopped.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Dec. 04, 2009 7:43 PM ET USA

    Sadly, this is a pot-kettle-black situation. Bishops are finally getting the courage to call legislators on the carpet for giving scandal to the Church by being complicit in aborting America, but won't call each other on the carpet for being complicit in abuse of children and teens. This is certainly a public scandal, and one cannot help but wonder which of the bishops should not be presenting himself for reception of the Eucharist. Who polices the police?

  • Posted by: - Dec. 04, 2009 7:06 PM ET USA

    I think the problem lies in the actual definition of the role of a bishop as a representative pastor from Rome to its flock. Remember that a bishop is in fact the "apostle" of the Church in charge of a jurisdiction. Is the bishop a kind of "ambassador" from Rome subject ultimately to Rome and then considered by Rome as having some kind of immunity? Or is the Bishop a local authority appointed by Rome but ultimately a servant of the most poor of his flock. This is what's at stake, everything...

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - Dec. 04, 2009 12:35 PM ET USA

    In the U.S. that point was reached near 4 decades ago. Read Msgr. Kelly's THE CRISIS OF AUTHORITY: John Paul II and the American Bishops 1981. It is not a question of which American bishops failed in their duty. It is a question of which did not. The latter are a handful.

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