It’s been 30 years since Jason Berry broke the Catholic sex abuse story by courageously reporting on the case of serial abuser Fr. Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana. When national publications refused to touch the story, Berry published his investigation in the Times of Acadiana, and that little paper proved to be the mouse that roared. The National Catholic Reporter immediately took the plunge and before long the mainstream media lost its fear of reporting how bishops systematically put the protection of their clergy and their church’s reputation ahead of the protection of minors.
NCR marked the anniversary last month with a tough editorial, which has drawn an appropriately non-confrontational response from Bishop Edward J. Burns of Juneau, Alaska, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. To his credit, Burns acknowledges that the church’s considerable effort to establish a safe environment for children should not be taken as “a sign that we have somehow put this scandal behind us, nor is it an occasion for self-congratulation…Rather, our shepherds, myself included, need to face and repent of the betrayal of trust. Authentic and heartfelt repentance by the shepherds of our church is not a distraction from our mission: It is the mission at this moment in the life of the church and her leaders.”
So what’s wrong with this?
What’s wrong is that, after 30 years, we are well past the “facing up and repenting” phase of the scandal — and (finally) into the “consequences for misbehaving bishops” phase. Burns makes no reference to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul, both of whom were clearly forced by the Vatican to resign this year for their handling of abuse cases. Nor does he note the tribunal that has been established by Pope Francis to deal with bishops charged with covering up and/or failing to report admitted or suspected abusers.
Here’s how Burns should have continued his letter:
“Yet there can be no ironclad guarantee that a bishop now or in the future will not abuse his trust in this regard. For that reason, it is essential that any bishop who does so will be removed from office. This year, the Vatican accepted the resignations of two bishops identified by the civil authorities as having failed to discharge their legal obligations with respect to subordinates suspected of abuse. More importantly, Pope Francis has announced the creation of a tribunal to adjudicate such cases. The U.S. bishops embrace this judicial mechanism as a necessary means of assuring our accountability.”
Only by endorsing a statement of this sort will the U.S. bishops make it clear to the world that they get it.