It can’t happen. It can’t happen. It happened.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 30, 2018

In November 2003, Kim Lawton of PBS interviewed then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan about the American bishops’ response to the abuse scandal.

Lawton: Some groups fear the bishops’ energy and commitment may fade.
Archbishop Dolan: Can’t happen. Can’t happen. We never, never, Kim, want to go through what we’ve had to do. We just can’t do it. We can’t do it personally. I think we bishops will collapse if we ever have to go through this again. And we can’t, we just can’t, in justice, put our people through that again. So, I don’t think there’s danger of us forgetting.

So now, roughly 15 years later, why are we talking about the bishops’ failure to take action?

  • Cardinal Dolan was wrong. There was a danger that the bishops would forget. They have an extraordinary facility for forgetting.
  • The bishops haven’t forgotten, but they still don’t quite understand why everyone was so upset in 2003, so the new uproar this summer has caught them by surprise—again.
  • The bishops haven’t forgotten, but they lack the ability and/or the determination to resolve it. The shepherds can’t guard the flock.
  • The bishops haven’t forgotten, but they didn’t see a connection between the molestation of boys under 18 by ordinary priests and the molestation of young men (mostly) over 18 by an archbishop.
  • The bishops haven’t forgotten, and they’re willing and able to take effective action, but as a group they’re so thoroughly out of touch that they were unaware of the McCarrick scandal even when scores of clerics, reporters, and ordinary lay Catholics were aware.

Now I have three questions:

  1. Which, if any, of the above explanations would restore your confidence in the American bishops?
  2. Which, if any, of the above explanations is an argument against multiple resignations?
  3. Which, if any, of the above explanations is an argument against a Vatican visitation, an independent commission, or some other official investigation that could ask the right questions, demand candid answers, and assign responsibility?

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: feedback - Jul. 31, 2018 7:35 PM ET USA

    @dfp3234574, the principles of Catholic morality have not changed over the millennia, and the shepherds earn their keep by teaching and following the principles. The spike in numbers of "sick priests" and their child victims coincided with the numbers of "sick" seminarians being admitted and ordained, while young men with real priestly vocations were vetted out for being "rigid" or "homophobic." One doesn't need to consult with "experts" to tell right from wrong about hurting Catholic children.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jul. 30, 2018 9:15 PM ET USA

    L. Martin Nussbaum, 2006: "No one would hold a brain surgeon to today's standard of care for professional decisions he made in 1970. Yet the decisions made in 1970 by Catholic bishops, who routinely consulted with mental health professionals about sick priests, are being judged by today's standards. Today, the confidence of the mental health community about the likelihood of curing sexual disorders is far less than it was in 1970." (And treatment of priests was argued as recently as 1985 & 1992)

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jul. 30, 2018 6:22 PM ET USA

    Currently, only a miracle would restore my confidence in the American bishops. Moreover, only a miracle would restore my confidence in the bishop of Rome.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Jul. 30, 2018 2:18 PM ET USA

    Answer to questions 1, 2, 3 - None of the above. When I see Bishop Scicluna land at JFK and give out his cellphone number to take any calls about Bishop, Archbishop, or Cardinal, I will know that someone is taking this seriously.

  • Posted by: Eric - Jul. 30, 2018 10:22 AM ET USA

    There are additional issues which explain the lack of action: 1) The "good o'l boy network is alive and well in the Church. 2) They are afraid to publicly go against one of their own. 3) Centuries of increasing Church centralization, have made bishops lazy, "Rome will take care of it...." (On a side not this is also explained by the tendency of Rome to appoint cautious men as bishops. It is a well-known fact that if you want to become a bishop, the watch word is DON’T MAKE WAVES!!!)