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Catholic Culture Podcasts

Behind the Chilean bishops’ resignations: a very hopeful sign?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 23, 2018

Although many questions remain about the mass resignation of Chile’s Catholic bishops, last week’s bombshell announcement brought one very promising development.

We still don’t know whether Pope Francis demanded, requested, or even encouraged the bishops’ resignations. There have been reports from Chile that the bishops decided to resign on their own volition, before meeting with the Holy Father. But even that report, if accurate, does not rule out the distinct possibility that the Pope had introduced the idea. In any case it seems highly unlikely that the entire body of bishops would resign against the Pope’s wishes. So in what follows I am assuming the Pope Francis at least approved of the gesture.

And if that is the case, then Pope Francis—after five years of waffling on the sex-abuse issue—has suddenly gone further than either of his predecessors in a bid to root out the corruption.

By “corruption” here I mean the corruption of bishops who cover up the crimes of predatory priests. We saw that corruption in the US, where the “Long Lent” of 2002 exposed the fact that most American bishops had been complicit, to one degree or another, in efforts to hide the evidence of abuse. We saw it in Ireland in 2009, when the “Murphy Report” showed the same pattern, now sadly familiar, of episcopal negligence. Now we see it in Chile, where many bishops—how many, we still don’t know—were evidently involved in the same sort of scandal.

The sex-abuse scandal, you see, is not only a matter of priests molesting boys—as horrible as that is. It also involves bishops forsaking their duties, protecting the guilty at the expense of the innocent. While not every bishop was negligent, the pattern was clear enough to show that in each of the cases mentioned above, the entire nation’s hierarchy had been corrupted.

In his landmark 2000 article, “The Gay Priest Problem” ( excerpted here), Father Paul Shaughnessy explained what it means for an entire institution to be corrupted:

For example, when we say a certain police force is corrupt, we don’t usually mean that every policeman is on the take—perhaps only five out of a hundred actually accept bribes—rather we mean that this police force can no longer diagnose and cure its own problems, and consequently if reform is to take place an outside agency has to be brought in to make the changes.

In 2002, when the pattern of episcopal corruption was exposed in the US, Pope John Paul II summoned the leaders of the US bishops’ conference to the Vatican to discuss the crisis. Following the discussions there, the American bishops gathered in Dallas to address one aspect of the scandal, setting tight new standards for disciplinary action against priests accused of abuse. These standards work well, when they are properly applied. But they do not address the second aspect of the scandal: the negligence or complicity of bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI learned from the American experience, and when the scandal exploded in Ireland several years later, he did address the bishops’ failures. In a pastoral message released in March 2010 he told the Irish bishops that they had “failed, at times grievously,” in their duties. He initiated an apostolic visitation of the Church in Ireland, and called for a program of repentance and reform.

The need for a thorough reform of the Church in Ireland should be especially evident this week, as pro-life activists fight a desperate uphill battle to stop a constitutional amendment that would allow abortion on demand in a country that remains, on paper, overwhelmingly Catholic. The spectacular collapse of Ireland’s Catholic culture shows that the abuse scandal did not arise ex nihilo. When Pope Benedict called for a “rebirth of the Church in Ireland in the fulness of God’s own truth,” he had dramatic changes in mind. Unfortunately, dramatic changes were not forthcoming.

Now, in Chile, the stage is set for dramatic change. The mass resignation indicates an understanding—apparently shared by the Pope and the Chilean bishops—that the scandal could not have reached such mammoth proportions unless the entire body of bishops had failed. Again, this does not mean that every bishop is guilty. It does suggest, however, that the episcopal conference was incapable of reforming itself. So Vatican intervention was necessary.

Vatican intervention was necessary, too, in the cases of the US and Ireland. But in each of those cases, the reigning Pontiff ultimately decided to let the nation’s bishops resolve their own problems—despite the evidence that those bishops’ conferences were dysfunctional. Pope Francis, it seems, will not make the same mistake.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting the Pope’s intentions, and/or those of the Chilean bishops. Time will tell. Few people have accused me of being excessively optimistic about the Vatican’s handling of the sex-abuse scandal, or about the leadership of Pope Francis. And again, there are many unanswered questions. Still, there is cause for hope.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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