Faced with resurgent abuse crisis, Catholic prelates answer with more meetings

To those of us who’ve closely followed the Catholic Church’s distressing self-inflicted scandal for decades, the current flurry of meetings without action is depressingly familiar.

A sign outside the Mundelein Seminary announces the closed campus as U.S.-based Roman Catholic bishops gather for a weeklong prayer retreat on Jan. 2, 2019, in Mundelein, Ill. The bishops are gathering to reflect on the church sexual abuse scandal ahead of a summit of the world's bishops next month at the Vatican aimed at forging a comprehensive response to the crisis. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

(RNS) — This week, America’s Roman Catholic bishops are gathering near Chicago for a retreat. This unusual high-level meeting comes quickly after their annual national get-together, in Baltimore last November, and just before a February meeting in Rome, where the highest-ranking Catholic prelates from across the globe will convene to address the same topic: clergy sexual abuse.

To some, this flurry of meetings may seem hopeful. But to those of us who’ve closely followed the church’s distressing self-inflicted scandal for decades, this seems depressingly familiar.

Why? Because virtually every time the crisis nears a boiling or tipping point, the Catholic hierarchy follows the basic same formula: Act shocked at recent revelations. Then schedule a meeting among themselves.

Over time, the formula has become more sophisticated: Structure each meeting slightly differently, so each can be called “unprecedented.” Throw in a papal apology (“We failed to protect the little ones … ”) and some tough talk (“We will no longer tolerate abuse … ”). Beg for forgiveness and patience. Then wait out the storm.

This formula has been used by bishops and cardinals and popes with surprising success for decades now. (It was in 1992 that the U.S. bishops first publicly discussed abuse as a group, seven years after the scandal first produced national headlines.)

It may not be a shrewd long-term strategy, but it works well enough to get embattled prelates through the short term. Public attention wanes, victims give up, secular authorities back off. Parishioners complain quietly but hunker down, keep going, keep giving and focus solely on their local parish, assuming the corruption is basically limited to the men at the top.

Sound undeservedly harsh? Consider this.

Psychology, common sense and personal experience tell us the best predictor of the future is past behavior. So let’s look at two of these three meetings.

At the bishops’ November meeting in Maryland, they talked about abuse and cover-up. But despite previous promises, they took literally no action whatsoever.

A lone protester stands outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

And now, as bishops meet in Mundelein, Ill., a Chicago suburb, they’ve already said that they won’t even discuss the crisis.

Initially, there were pledges of tough steps to be taken in Rome next month. But already church officials in both Italy and the United States are trying to tamp down expectations, talking up how purportedly “complex” the whole situation is.

Common sense also tells us that if an institution has a long-standing, deeply rooted and seemingly intractable problem, someone from the outside must be brought in to investigate, crack heads, fire people and impose reform.

Ever seen that happen in the church?

Sure, the notion of bringing in investigators gets lip service. But the ones “brought in” are almost always loyal lay people, who’ve grown up in the church and still belong, and who’ve been raised since birth to respect, revere and trust the ordained.

The well-meaning but powerless laity are given “advisory” roles, and inaccurate and inadequate information by the hierarchy. Many eventually quietly quit when it becomes clear they’re window dressing for a closed-door men’s club that refuses to share power.

So seasoned observers and abuse victims aren’t hopeful about these upcoming meetings and won’t be mollified by them. We hope that state prosecutors who have recently been goaded into action by last year’s damning grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania won’t be either.

(David Clohessy, the former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the volunteer leader of the group’s St. Louis chapter. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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