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The crisis: Déjà vu all over again

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 31, 2018

[This is an abridged version of a letter I wrote to ecclesiastical authorities after the Boston Globe revelations in 2002. I received no response. I think the letter—after sixteen years—remains painfully relevant today after the McCarrick debacle.]

The “priest crisis” cannot be limited to priests on the front lines. The problem has its roots in the episcopacy and in chanceries all across the country. It is more accurately a “bishops crisis.” The hierarchy has too often failed to promote authentic Catholic truth and justice. Over the years, there is clearly a pattern of cover-up and lies by an unexpectedly large number of bishops.

The bishops insist that they were on some kind of “learning curve” with respect to disciplining sexual offenders. But this is nonsense. In the 1960s, a bishop in Louisiana excommunicated Catholics who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The bishops rightly recognized racial hatred as unworthy of a Christian and demanded swift and certain justice.

But many bishops did not have the same passion for justice when it came to clerical sexual abuse. The toleration for homosexual activity by priests who have exploited adolescents (very few of the abuse cases were outright pedophilia) is inexplicable unless the bishops were crippled by deliberate ignorance, gross apathy or cowardice. The ugly possibility of blackmail also cannot be ruled out.

Not a single bishop has resigned because of incompetence or mendacity. Why not? Are bishops compromised or do they fear that their bishop friends will be compromised if gay priests or other sexual predators are punished? The litany of bishops who have resigned or are under a cloud for homosexual behavior is growing: Bishop Emerson Moore, a notorious homosexual in clerical ranks who eventually died of AIDS, Bishops Zieman, Ryan, O’Connell (who was the chairman of the NCCB’s committee on marriage and family), Symons, Lynch, and Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Archbishop Weakland, you may recall, often held high profile positions in the NCCB (now the USCCB). Before their sinful lifestyles became public, did their secrets motivate the cover-ups?

The Dallas guidelines for bishops do not deal with non-criminal sexual sins such as fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. The guidelines do not even deal with the root cause of these sins: dissent from Church teaching on human sexuality. Why not? Dissent is not a sin of weakness. It is an act of the intellect which increases the gravity of sin and the risk to souls. It makes sense that any priest or religious who dissents from Church teaching in matters of human sexuality should also be removed from pastoral ministry.

In the past, offending priests—that is, priests who have become real or potential embarrassments to the bishops—have been “treated” for “psychological disorders” instead of punished for sin. After months of pampering in country-club psychological therapy treatment centers, they were recycled to sin again. I am aware of one of the major treatment centers that used to advise gay priests to “be discreet” in the practice of their homosexuality when they returned to ministry.

I’ve read the spiritual and psychological clinical risk-assessment of the infamous child molester Father Geoghan who was treated at Saint Luke Institute in Maryland. I recall being appalled at the neglect of the most basic questions of Catholic morality. As I read the report, I wondered how the psychological assessment would vary from a completely secular evaluation.

Many bishops, through their chanceries, systematically lied to victims and their families. Sometimes payoffs were clearly made with the hope that everything would be kept from the media spotlight while the offending priests were reassigned.

While there should always be an episcopal concern to avoid detraction, fear of the media should not become an excuse to allow sexual perverts to continue in the sacred ministry. When there is a choice between just punishment and unintended publicity, just punishment for crimes against God should have been the priority.

Just as the bishops feared media exposure back in those days, that pattern of fear continues today. Because justice was not administered when the crimes were committed, the bishops have now become merciless in the punishment of priests. The policy is particularly devoid of mercy because, as a “one size fits all” policy, it does not make the distinctions necessary to address the real problem: homosexual priests who seduce and even rape young men. The policy would equate this crime with the imprudence of a young newly ordained priest innocently kissing a 15-year-old niece.

During my early years as a priest, a shut-in woman accused a hard-working, elderly priest of making a sexual advance on her. I used to bring the woman Communion. She was very pious and sweet. Who could doubt her? The husband confronted the priest and the priest fell to his knees, claiming innocence, tortured in grief. According to the husband—who told me the story—the priest suffered for nearly a year until the woman at long last began to show certain signs of Alzheimer’s disease. How would that priest fare in the current climate of “guilty until proven innocent.” We now face the absurd and frightening prospect of bishops disciplining priests for simply not being able to disprove allegations.

I am praying that we return to a Church of Christian truth, justice, and mercy. For too long we have suffered under a media-driven hierarchy more concerned with protecting personal privilege and power. Not only has the credibility of the bishops been shaken, the very credibility of the Church is at risk. How can we expect a truly evangelical Church when too many bishops have turned a blind eye to the heinous crimes detailed in the media? Will the bishops at the November [2002] meeting be upright and strong enough to address the bishops’ crisis forthrightly? Will the bishops have the courage to insist that any bishop who has lied to his people should resign for the good of the Church?

We need a return to Christ through the just rule of law in truth. That’s the only “pastoral solution.” Hence, I write in conscience.

[September 23, 2002]

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 09, 2018 11:12 PM ET USA

    Father, "all over again" is really a misnomer; it continues. While not a victim, I am absolutely certain the Bishops were aware of the problem as far back as 1988. My guess is, there was awareness & acceptance decades before '88. Until the elitecism / clericalism is stamped out the problem of hidden, tolerated, unacceptable behavior will remain and possibly encouraged by default. The problem will be corrected but I am not confident resolution will be as speedy as it could or should occur.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Sep. 05, 2018 1:00 PM ET USA

    Fr. Pokorsky received no response. The four cardinals who wrote the dubia have not received a response. The journalist who asked Pope Francis about Archbishop Vigano's letter was told by Pope Francis that he would not respond, at least for the time being. Thus, what else is new? "Deja vu all over again."

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 03, 2018 5:50 PM ET USA

    Father, I'm afraid that this is much worse now that a "déjà vu all over again." The unwillingness to make any step to reform from the filth will require Divine intervention. And for this I pray.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 31, 2018 7:40 PM ET USA

    Like Prelates Vigano, Schneider, and others, Fr. Pokorsky places the blame exactly where it belongs. Until we see action on the part of the episcopacy, rather than only words, we will continue to share his skepticism.