The removal of the Church’s Cone of Silence

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 21, 2018

In response to my commentary “In denial about not ordaining homosexuals?”, a reader insisted on an interesting point in Sound Off: “I don’t usually do this but—you’re wrong. The problem is not clerical homosexuals…. Secrecy is the problem.”

We do not really disagree, of course (well, except for the particularly laughable assertion that I could actually be wrong about anything). The whole point of my essay was that, by the Church’s own rules, there should be no homosexuals among the clergy to create a gay subculture, and that the only way to deal with the abuse scandal is to recognize this disconnect between the rule and the practice, openly denounce it for what it is, and eliminate it. Silence, in these circumstances, is simply a means of hiding from a much deeper moral responsibility.

But while the irresponsibility of silence has become increasingly apparent over the past fifteen years, it has not always been obvious. Very often, in fact, silence is morally positive. There are, after all, three motives for silence when learning of any kind of abuse within the Church, and only two of these motives are bad. With specific reference to our current abuse crisis, I will list those motives here:

  1. Desire to protect the reputation of the Church and the reputations of those involved, in the hope that the problem can be dealt with effectively but without publicity;
  2. Fear of taking action against homosexuals both because of the power of the gay network within the Church and the overwhelming hostility to criticism of homosexuals in the larger culture;
  3. Moral confusion, moral error and/or moral complicity with respect to the sins in question.

It is not hard to see that the first reason, which actually should be the initial response to clerical sin in most cases, is admirable if the moral lapse is dealt with effectively. Should word get out later, if people find that the problem was decisively eliminated, there would be no good reason for finding fault with the Church. But if they learn instead that the issue was not dealt with effectively, and perhaps not even taken very seriously, then there is—and quite rightly—hell to pay. What we have to realize, therefore, is that when the moral issue goes uncorrected, the resulting state of affairs implicates all those whose initial motive for keeping silence was perfectly sound.

The Cone of Silence

This means that the longer a problem goes uncorrected, the more people there are with personal reasons to keep things dark. Moreover, when a serious moral problem among the clergy persists over a period of time without correction, even the best clergy see themselves as facing a Hobbesian choice: Most have only a small piece of the puzzle, and if they openly denounce the immorality of which they are aware, the original reluctance to unnecessarily harm reputations will be multiplied by a specific concern for the ecclesiastical superiors who have failed, for reasons the clergy in question cannot know, to resolve the problem. Additionally, with respect to the fear outlined in item 2 above, there will now be an even greater fear of repercussions from an even larger circle of clerics who do not want the boat rocked. Finally, even if there is no confusion or error in the one considering disclosure (item 3), there may now be concern about breaking commitments of confidentiality which were made in good faith!

Nobody should be incapable of understanding how silence became standard operating procedure with respect to something as sensitive as sexual abuse, especially given our dominant secular culture. We need to recall that the imperative for openness did not become crystal clear until the extent of the problem became widely known in the early 2000s, by which time our culture was well on its way to a complete approval of homosexuality. We must add to these considerations the fact that the vast bulk of abuse had occurred nearly a generation ago, so that the problem in the present moment could be discounted as far less severe.

For more than fifteen more years after the millennial revelations in the Boston Globe, the silence still persisted, probably for two reasons: First, there was much talk among Church leaders of a zero tolerance policy, so it looked for a time as if ecclesiastical leadership was going to address the problem effectively, even though it was clear that the bishops were not keen on taking their own share of responsibility. The plan, clearly, was to stop abuse without taking on the gay culture within the Church, but most lay people were as yet unaware of this problem. Second, the situation seemed to be slowly improving under Pope Benedict XVI who, in his quiet way, at least did far more to remove the most culpable bishops from office than any of his predecessors.

Even now, as we are rightly outraged at the latest revelations, we should not forget the point repeatedly made by David Pierre (who chronicles the unfairness of so many of those who accuse the Church). Pierre argues that the preponderance of abuse cases are still fairly old, that it is not uncommon for priests to be wrongly accused today, and that there is a whole secular/anti-Catholic industry doing its best to destroy the Church regardless of the full truth.

Taking back the Church

I say that we should not forget this, but I do not say that we should over-emphasize it, for it simply will not answer our current Catholic moral crisis to launch a counter-attack against the Church’s critics. The primary responsibility for Catholics does not lie in proving that the Church’s enemies exaggerate her faults (which is true); that the media considers the Church alone reprehensible while ignoring similar patterns of abuse in most other institutions (which is also true); or that the lawyers and the courts single out the Church almost exclusively for monetary damages (which is true once again).

No, the primary Catholic responsibility is to reject distractions and commit seriously to the purification of the Church. With the latest major reports on clerical abuse, the cone of silence has finally been removed, and this is an extraordinary, game-changing development. The Viganò testimony may well have breached the dike, and a growing number of clerics are clearly willing to speak openly about things previously kept hidden. In addition, more and more bishops and cardinals are beginning to publicly demand that the truth be uncovered, and that the truth be told.

But this is not just about sexual abuse. The Church throughout much of the world needs to be purified of those religious communities and academic institutions which are hotbeds of resistance to Catholic faith and morals. (It is no surprise that sexual abuse should have flourished with the open betrayal of moral theology beginning in the 1960s, a betrayal with secret academic roots stretching back through the temporary suppression of Modernism.) The Church also needs to be purified of the continuing tendency of too many clerics to violate the rights of the faithful to the Church’s doctrine and the Church’s liturgy. (These rights, formerly implicit, were of necessity written into the Code of Canon Law in the major revision of 1983.)

The removal of the cone of silence is a very good thing indeed. We should pray that the increased willingness of Catholic leaders to speak frankly about abuse will lead to a greater recognition of ecclesiastical betrayal across the board. We desperately need a Catholic culture of honesty, beginning with honesty about the acceptance of Catholic faith and morals. Yes, we have made slow progress over the past forty years. But it is my hope that, despite apparent remaining obstacles at the highest levels, we can begin to make more rapid progress now. In the right situation, silence is golden. But no worldly alchemy can make it golden today.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jan02 - Sep. 22, 2018 7:03 PM ET USA

    "Desire to protect the reputation of the Church and the reputations of those involved...": no mention of concern & possible harm to victims & future victims. If one instant of abuse comes to light, how do we know there are not 10 others who have not reported? By exposing one instance, others may come forward. Your article seems to imply that protecting the reputation of the clergy and the Church are more important than the victims and potential victims. Concern for victims must come first.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 22, 2018 6:16 PM ET USA

    "Truth" is silent sometimes.. but unfortunately... so is cowardice and criminality... Let us all choose wisely...!

  • Posted by: miked.doc6394 - Sep. 22, 2018 1:00 PM ET USA

    You're expansion of the crisis beyond the sexual abuse, to include (and be related to) doctrinal and liturgical abuse, is why I am so encouraged by what has been revealed these past five months. As a graduate of Franciscan University, and the father of a Chesterton Academy graduate, the necessity of seperation from, and mistrust of, bishops in this country, in order to succeed in orthodox endeavors, is now being better understood and in most cases justified.

  • Posted by: Foundas - Sep. 21, 2018 7:06 PM ET USA

    I can only hope and pray that purification actually takes place. My concern is about the hierarchy such as Blaise Cupich that want things to stay status quo. Our current pope seems to be not interested in cleaning up the messes, some of which he created.