The only way to restore public confidence in Catholic bishops

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 21, 2016

The revelation that the apostolic nuncio in Washington quashed an investigation into the alleged misconduct of an American archbishop is another damaging blow to the wounded credibility of the Catholic hierarchy. Nearly fifteen years after the sex-abuse scandal destroyed public confidence in the bishops’ integrity, that confidence has still not been restored—precisely because stories like this one keep bursting into the headlines.

To put this issue in the proper historical perspective, let me disclose something about the editorial policies of Catholic World News. When I first began the service, back in 1996, I treated any credible report of clerical abuse as an important story, and a lawsuit against a Catholic diocese was top-headline material. Twenty years later, new charges of priestly abuse and new lawsuits against Catholic dioceses have become so commonplace that they barely merit a mention. Even diocesan bankruptcy filings and multi-million-dollar settlements, and the parish closings that follow, command only a quick story at the bottom of our daily headline menu. The editorial bar is now set much higher at CWN; only the most sensational stories receive top billing. But it is important to bear in mind that the lesser revelations—the stories that might have generated shocking headlines in 1996—keep dribbling out, week after week. The massive hemorrhage of episcopal credibility occurred in 2002, but since that time the bleeding has never entirely stopped.

This week’s revelation breaks new ground because for the first time, critics of the Church have solid “smoking gun” evidence that the Vatican—or at least someone fully authorized to represent the Vatican in the US—smothered an inquiry into a prelate’s behavior. Since Archbishop Vigano was acting on behalf of the Holy See, it is not unreasonable to assume that senior Vatican officials approved of his action, and perhaps even ordered it. So this case raises new questions about the commitment of the Vatican to root out corruption in the episcopate. Nor can those questions be finessed by saying that Pope Francis has brought a new dedication to the cause of reform; this case arose in 2014, during the current pontificate.

Read only a few of the documents made public yesterday in Minnesota, and you are forced toward one of two possible conclusions. Either Archbishop John Nienstedt was guilty of gross misconduct, and unfit for his office; or he was the target of a organized campaign of slander, designed to silence his opposition to the gay-rights movement. One way or another, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis was (or is) in grave danger. Wasn’t it imperative to know the facts, fully understand the problem, and excise the cancer?

Don’t the faithful the right to know what has happened, to cause so much distress within the Church they love? If Archbishop Nienstedt is guilty, he should be denounced—not allowed to negotiate a quiet withdrawal and then treated with the respect customarily accorded to a retired prelate. If he has been unjustly accused, then the slanderers should be exposed and denounced; the archbishop should stay and his accusers should go. Instead the former nuncio arranged a solution that has left everyone with questions and doubts.

Questions and doubts: these are the enemies of credibility. Important as it is to establish the guilt or innocence of Archbishop John Nienstedt, for my present purposes it is more important that the papal nuncio chose to set a higher priority on public appearances than on exposing the truth. Evidently he thought that he could avoid a broader scandal by negotiating the early exit of Archbishop Nienstedt. But of course he did not avoid the broader scandal; he only postponed and enlarged it. How many lessons will be needed before the point finally sinks in: the cover-up is worse than the crime!

The Catholic hierarchy—and yes, that includes the Vatican—cannot regain public trust without demonstrating a willingness to pursue and expose the truth about clerical misconduct. New policies and procedures will never erase doubts, unless they are implemented by Church leaders in whom the public has complete confidence. And the public will not, and should not, place that sort of trust in leaders who slough off the critical questions, and place all their trust on the lawyerly multiplication of policies and procedures.

Another personal story: Back in the early 1990s, as the first stories of clerical abuse began to crop up in the news, a Catholic radio-show host asked me how important the story was—fully expecting, I’m sure, that I would say the reports had been overblown. I replied instead that I feared this would be the greatest crisis for Catholicism since the Reformation.

The Reformation was a response to real abuses within the Catholic Church, and the Council of Trent eventually moved to end those abuses. The sex-abuse problem has laid bare another scandal: the existence of a complacent clerical culture, protected by a complacent episcopate, unresponsive to the needs of the laity. The only way to eliminate the scandal entirely is by a thorough reform of the Catholic clergy. Unfortunately, as a group the clergy—bishops included—have not yet recognized the need for that reform.

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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  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jul. 24, 2016 9:38 PM ET USA

    I totally agree that the investigations should have been allowed to continue so that Bishop Nienstedt would either have been vindicated or found guilty. I think he may well have been vindicated, although I can't know that for sure. (Full disclosure: Many years ago, before he was Bishop, Father Nienstedt was the pastor of our parish, and an excellent pastor. I'm inclined to think he was unjustly targeted.)

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jul. 23, 2016 11:17 PM ET USA

    “I feared this would be the greatest crisis for Catholicism since the Reformation.” I do not think this is an overstatement Phil. All other considerations should be considered in the light of this degree of seriousness. For a Vatican representative to go so far as to just squash an investigation of this type is to live in a world far from reality. It is very disheartening.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jul. 23, 2016 1:36 PM ET USA

    And ... "If Archbishop Nienstedt is guilty, he should be denounced — not allowed to negotiate a quiet withdrawal and then treated with the respect customarily accorded." ... How does such treatment fall in line with Church teaching? How does "denouncing" align with Pope Francis' "Year of Mercy" and the Christ's call for mercy on others? - DPierre

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jul. 23, 2016 1:34 PM ET USA

    Phil, I respect and admire your work a lot, but I could not disagree more with your assessment. Enemies from both within and outside the Church know sex abuse accusations are the ultimate weapon. Abp. Nienstedt has strongly denied these old charges, and there is no reason not to believe him. And "denouncing" the false accusers accomplishes nothing, as the media doesn't care what the facts are. The media *always* gets what it wants. The Church should say, "Enough is enough. We're done with this."

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jul. 22, 2016 6:47 PM ET USA

    "Unfortunately, as a group the clergy—bishops included—have not yet recognized the need for that reform." That would be sort of like calling in an air strike on their own position for the good of their Country. Only martyrs and American military Heros have been willing to do that! Certainly we should NOT expect our gutless, clueless, Bishops to do such a thing for a Church they have never really loved. That could mean losing their status, luxurious living arrangements, and pensions!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 22, 2016 6:28 PM ET USA

    "Unfortunately, as a group the clergy...have not yet recognized the need for that reform." So where does the problem start? In the seminaries, with seminary rectors and bishops who apparently either duck and cover or make friends with mammon. Where does the problem end? With the faithful orders of priests who minister daily with their eyes wide open to the pulse of the world and of the Church. Shrewd observers of the Western Church's march toward destruction, they maintain the ancient faith.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 22, 2016 7:50 AM ET USA

    "Do the right thing for the right reason." Stark simplicity. When wrong decisions become so consistent that they ultimately indicate something more than isolated threads but rather a fabric- a culture- of "wrongness" there is a serious problem. When this manifest wrongness leads to financial, political and spiritual disaster and immeasurable pain for innocents it's not unreasonable to ask how it might be resolved without a sweeping removal of those who have created and/or participated in it.