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Ripples from the John Jay study: Don't understate the bishops' culpability

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 24, 2011

In an exchange with David Gibson of Commonweal Cardinal Francis George of Chicago gives the impression that the John Jay report was rough on the American hierarchy: “It shows where the bishops were derelict in attending to the full scope of the tragedy.”

It does? Maybe I missed that part. In my opinion the report was far too easy on the bishops. I suppose maybe this is just a question of perspective. Or maybe it illustrates that American bishops are so sensitive to criticism, they feel the sting of even the gentlest admonition.

Cardinal George recognizes the accuracy of the one criticism that does come through clearly in the John Jay report. The bishops, in their response to complaints of abuse, directed their attention to the perpetrators. “But what was missing, often, was the voice of the victim.”

Put in those terms, the bishops’ dereliction seems to be a failure of perspective. They were right to worry about the priests who were guilty of abuse, but they should not have let that concern overpower their duty toward the victims. They concentrated too heavily on preventing troubled priests from abusing again; they didn’t pay enough attention to the cries of the innocent. They were trying to do the right thing, but they overlooked a terribly important aspect of the problem. That is the criticism the John Jay report levels at the American hierarchy.

Unfortunately that explanation of the bishops’ failure is mild to the point of inaccuracy: a rose-tinted portrayal of a darker reality. In scores of cases that have been thoroughly exposed in the mass media, bishops did not merely ignore abuse victims; they compounded the injuries. Victims who reported abuse in good faith were often summarily dismissed, bullied into silence, and branded as liars—even when diocesan officials had good reason to believe that their complaints were accurate. Bishops did not merely neglect to hear the victims’ side of the story. When the victims’ families persisted—respectfully, even charitably, explaining the danger to other young people—the bishops and their chancery subordinates treated them as pariahs. This was not simply a matter of failing to recognize the suffering of the victims. Bishops quite deliberately insulated themselves from the victims’ complaints.

Questions about the bishops’ culpability are complicated by the fact that during the height of the sex-abuse crisis, priests who molested children were often sent to specialized treatment centers, and then sent back to their dioceses with assurances that the once-troubled priest would now be safe for parish work. Time and again these assurances were proven wrong; the priests molested children again. When they try to defend their decisions, the bishops say that they were relying on expert opinion. (Some other day, we can look into the question of how bishops came to rely on experts who were so often wrong, and how the lessons of past generations were un-learned during the 1960s and 1970s.) But that threadbare explanation only explains why a predatory priest was so often given a second (or third or fourth) chance in active ministry. It does not explain why, when they were asked whether the priests had been accused of misconduct, our bishops so often lied.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bernadette - Jun. 02, 2011 11:13 AM ET USA

    One "small" item missing: What about the "Good Ol' Boys'" network? By that, I mean, the network of homosexual bishops, even today, who protected their own? Hmmm? That "little item" has never, as far as I know, been on the table.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - May. 25, 2011 2:33 PM ET USA

    Yes,Mary, and the victim ran the risk of being abused again by unsympathetic hierarchy who could try to cast the victim as a liar.

  • Posted by: - May. 25, 2011 12:25 PM ET USA

    As far as the "missing" "voice of the victim" goes,my first reaction was--maybe victims didn't want publicity, and, what could do a bishop do besides grieve, apologize privately, and remove the offender,maybe privately, for many reasons.But I know personally of more than 1 reporter of documented, serious liturgical abuse, 20 yrs. or so ago, who was insulted and branded a liar, whether or not the abuse was corrected.So,"shoot the messenger" was evidently common "pastoral" practice.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - May. 25, 2011 5:41 AM ET USA

    Spot on commentary! Some bishops also seemed to act as though the interesting, compelling emotional drama was with the culprit--not the victims.

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