In Cardinal Pell's testimony, a breakthrough for accountability
For nearly 15 years, I have been waiting for a Catholic bishop to say, for the record, that another bishop’s handling of the sex-abuse scandal had been negligent. This week it finally happened.
Think about that. Heaven knows there has been plenty of evidence of negligence. Some bishops have resigned; others have cut deals with prosecutors. Scores of bishops have acknowledged that the crisis has been handled badly, and in many cases one could read between the lines and recognize implicit criticism of an individual. But I cannot recall a single instance in which Bishop A said that Bishop B had proven himself unfit for his post.
There was a time, back in 2002, when the leaders of the American bishops’ conference were summoned to Rome to discuss the crisis, and one prelate—speaking under condition of anonymity—suggested to reporters that Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law should resign. But anonymous quotes and implicit criticisms are not the same as forthright statements.
The issue is, and always has been, accountability. Priests should be held responsible for their conduct. Bishops should be held responsible for their handling of priests under their charge. If a bishop is clearly negligent, then he should be held responsible by his brother bishops.
That hasn’t happened. On the contrary, even after resigning under pressure, prelates have been treated with elaborate deference, by the successors who are appointed to clean up their messes. It is confusing, at best, when a bishop who barely escaped indictment is lauded as a great leader, by a successor who wants to restore credibility to the Church hierarchy.
This week, in testimony before a hostile investigating commission, Cardinal George Pell made no effort to sugar-coat his message. He said that Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, the former head of Australia’s Ballarat diocese, had been “absolutely extraordinary” in his “repeated refusal to act” on sex-abuse complaints. The cardinal went on to say that he couldn’t name another bishop whose handling of the problem was “so grave and inexplicable.”
You might argue that last point; there have been many bishops whose actions (or, more often, inaction) were “grave and inexplicable.” But you can’t argue that Cardinal Pell was equivocating. He thinks that Bishop Mulkearns neglected his duties, he recognizes that the results were disastrous, and he says so.
In Australia, an angry media campaign has denounced Cardinal Pell as the ultimate villain in covering up sexual abuse, the defender of a nefarious old-boy network. Actually the opposite is true. He’s the first prominent prelate who has shown that he puts the welfare of the Church ahead of the niceties of episcopal dignity—that he is ready to speak the unvarnished truth, even if that truth includes recognition of another bishop’s failings.
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