Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

There are only 2 things an American bishop can say now...

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 22, 2018

The Pennsylvania grand-jury report was released on the very day that I had chosen (long beforehand) to begin a week-long vacation. I had vowed that it would be a real vacation—that I wouldn’t hop back to post news items on this site—and I held to that vow. Still I could not escape the news; everyone I met wanted to hear my take on the scandal.

So I told people what I have been telling people since 2002: that the Dallas Charter addressed only one part of a three-part scandal; that our bishops have still not recognized the depth of the problem; that the crisis will continue until Church leaders demand true reform.

This new outcropping of the scandal has roused much, much more anger than the earlier revelations of the “Long Lent” in 2002. And whereas sixteen years ago the public was shocked primarily by the loathsome activities of predatory priests, this year the focus is—quite rightly—on the bishops. Our shepherds failed us. They misled us. They told us that they had fixed the problem, and they hadn’t. They told us that there would be no more cover-ups, but there were. They told us that they now understood the problem, but they didn’t. And I’m afraid that, as a group, they still don’t. If the American bishops understood the depth and breadth of the rage that is mounting among the Catholic laity—and is most evident among the most loyal, the most active, the most prayerful Catholics—they would follow the example of their Chilean counterparts and resign en masse.

Against this background it was refreshing, on my first full day back on the job, to go to morning Mass and hear the reading from Ezekiel (34: 1-11):

The word of the LORD came to me:
“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.
The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts.
My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;
therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.

Dozens of bishops have released public statements about the scandal in the past few weeks. Some of these statements have been hard to credit: prelates claiming that they did not know what so many people around them knew, that they did not hear what they had been told. Others have been lawyerly and bureaucratic: mistakes were made, committees will be formed, procedures will be instituted. Most, to be fair, have been solid statements, full of apologies, recognizing a need for corrective action, promising reform.

Unfortunately we have heard the apologies and the promises before. The time for strongly worded statements has passed. It is time for action. Urgent action.

Last week a young Catholic woman asked me what our bishops are likely to do. “They’ll meet in November,” I began—and she interrupted with a shout: “In November??!!” She could not believe that, in the midst of this crisis, Church leaders would be content to wait several weeks before doing… anything. I share her frustration. I think Ezekiel shares it, too.

I said above that the time for statements has passed, but that was a slight exaggeration. There are two sorts of statements that a bishop could issue to catch my attention and earn my respect:

  1. “I recognize that I have betrayed my people and irreparably damaged my credibility as a pastor of souls and a teacher of the faith. I resign.”
  2. “I have done my best, despite my failings, to fulfill my episcopal duties. But my colleagues, [here supply names], have betrayed their people and irreparably damaged their credibility as pastors of souls and teachers of the faith. I call upon them to resign.

New statements, new policies, new committees, new procedures cannot resolve this problem. If our bishops cannot institute serious reform, then we need new bishops.

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: rdennehy8049 - Aug. 27, 2018 8:23 AM ET USA

    To resign "en masse" to me would be a great mistake. Not all of the Archbishops or Bishops are guilty. I have always been told that the Church is there for sinners and i agree that the problem has been magnified by some of the Bishops but not all. I agree with the suggested response in your article and that those who have not covered up the guilty parties should call for the resignations of the responsible parties.

  • Posted by: kl8439 - Aug. 26, 2018 2:57 PM ET USA

    How about my bishop, who has been on the job for six months? How is he responsible for what has happened?

  • Posted by: [email protected] - Aug. 24, 2018 11:08 PM ET USA

    It is time for action. Most our bishops are corrupt. Follow the money from the government. These bishops would rather support pro-abortion catholic politicians as long a they get their money. So you expect them to do something about the coverups on the child scandals and homosexual priests. It will be another 2002 meeting led by likes Cardinal Wuerl. We will be fed pablum on the subjects. Many of these greedy bishops need to resign.Name your colleagues who should resign and push the issue.

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Aug. 24, 2018 10:14 PM ET USA

    Arrogance, not homosexuality, is the largest problem among the bishops. They are a haughty lot; so are many priests. The Baptized Faithful -- that is ALL of us, et al. have a singular opportunity and duty to reform their lives. Many bishops can't get it, not because of same-sex attraction, but because sin has been forgotten and grace with it. The force bishops feel pressing against their careers is nothing compared to the peril their souls bear. Other need to wait for conversion of hearts..

  • Posted by: DanS - Aug. 24, 2018 8:08 PM ET USA

    Thanks, Phil, for you courage and perservance.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Aug. 24, 2018 7:27 PM ET USA

    This is an honest question: Since the bulk of the cases in the PA report were from the 70's & 80's, and an even more vast majority of cases were before 2002, how much of what we learned from that report is actually new? And were there any *new* cover-ups *after* 2002?

  • Posted by: jslabonik53 - Aug. 24, 2018 7:19 PM ET USA

    Well, if you look at the incidents that occurred within the last 10-20 years most resulted in immediate suspension of priest with referral to proper secular authorities. I wouldn't judge the current leaders of the church based on failures of the past. Most of whom are dead. I have no problem defrocking Wuerl, mccarrick,and others. But this is mostly a problem of episcopal sodomy that needs to be eradicated. But secular society won't help with that as they embrace it.

  • Posted by: BCLX - Aug. 24, 2018 6:03 PM ET USA

    Francis should call a council to address three principal issues: mandatory celibacy; reforms in the selection of bishops providing for significant lay participation in the process; and thorough reform of church governance to give meaningful roles to the laity to make church governance thoroughly transparent.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Aug. 24, 2018 3:35 PM ET USA

    With some commendable exceptions, many of the bishops have simply engaged in damage control.

  • Posted by: leticia.cadiz4543 - Aug. 24, 2018 1:56 AM ET USA

    It is so refreshing to read your commentary and as always you go right into the heart of the matter and makes solid recommendations. Thank you

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 23, 2018 8:47 PM ET USA

    Having read the comments below, I would like to suggest what I consider a critical first step. (A) Identify every homosexual clergyman. (B) Implement Pope Benedict's guidelines. (C) Enforce the Church's moral code. Action (A) would serve as acknowledgment that the Bishops were beginning to take the crisis seriously. Action (B) would go a long way towards preventing future abuses. Action (C) among men of honor would put an immediate end to current abusive acts.

  • Posted by: johnk64 - Aug. 23, 2018 12:59 PM ET USA

    IF the hierarchy was truly serious they could do one thing to assure the faithful that they were serious. They could commit themselves & their priests to take a polygraph yearly for the next 10 years. Questions the same for all: specifics on what you did, with whom, what do you know, etc. Summary results to be posted on the diocesan website. This would require humility, but would ensure transparency. I doubt they would do this, but why not?

  • Posted by: Montserrat - Aug. 23, 2018 9:52 AM ET USA

    "It is time for action. Urgent action." There's a parallel with the political lies and scandals of the Obama years, and now with the radical left. It seems that pundits and politicians were/are "outraged" every other day, but no action is ever taken. We cannot allow this to happen with the current crisis in our Church.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 23, 2018 8:15 AM ET USA

    Our Bishop sent a letter to be read at each Mass. The letter avoided assuring us that he was doing the best he could. He did let us know that systems for Ethics in Ministry for lay people were being upgraded. Since the main issue of late is priest and bishop malfeasance the letter was an insult. I like your two statements. Had our bishop used them he would have earned a lot more respect from the pews.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Aug. 23, 2018 7:43 AM ET USA

    So even if a particular bishop didn't do anything wrong, he should resign? Really? Because "people are angry"? Where is the justice in that? Here's a better idea: Tell me exactly a *particular action* committed by a *particular bishop* that warrants that bishop resigning. I'd be happy to listen to that.

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Aug. 23, 2018 6:36 AM ET USA

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that in 2002 Cardinal McCarrick frequently appeared on news talk shows defending the American Catholic Church from the scandal - more than any other cardinal/bishop. In other words, an infamous sexual predator led the 2002 predatory sex scandal PR campaign and NO BISHOP said a word. This tells me all I need to know about whether the USCCB's corrective actions will be different this time.

  • Posted by: shrink - Aug. 22, 2018 6:25 PM ET USA

    "If our bishops cannot institute serious reform, then we need new bishops." Ah yes, new bishops, and new cardinals too, and why stop there? A pope, perhaps? As the resignation of his Eminence, Donald Cld Wuerl sits on our pontiff's desk, for two years ago, it has yet to be accepted. Is this Pope too distracted? Or is it more likely a sign that even a pope should resign, so that there may be serious reform.

  • Posted by: Chatholic - Aug. 22, 2018 6:23 PM ET USA

    Fr. Dwight Longenecker posted a laundry list of actions earlier today. I fisked it and emailed it back to him. He said to share it. It's TL;DR, emailing it to you. It is full of great advice. It is what we must demand from our bishops because none of them are going to do either of the things you said. Sadly, I believe that firmly. I sign off, "nighty-night, baby."