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)

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

(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

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.)


  1. It is quite clear that the bishops’ and Francis’ strategy is to delay until all the people involved – enablers, predators, and victims – are dead. During that time the Church will continue to shrink. But at the end – when all the enablers, predators, and victims are dead – the bishops will have their “smaller, holier Church” supported by a few gullible Trad loyalists. That won’t actually stop the predators and the enablers, but at least in the “smaller, holier Church” there will be a lot fewer potential victims available.

  2. “someone from the outside must be brought in to investigate, crack heads, fire people and impose reform.”

    This is a description of a government agency or a corporation, not a religious community. The Church must find the ability to hold itself accountable from within.

  3. No church is above the law. If they are not going to cooperate with civil authorities when it comes to patterns of harmful criminal behavior, then steps need to be taken from the outside.

  4. When crimes are committed, the civil authorities have their proper role. The Church recognizes that. But this isn’t so much about “what happens when the crime is committed” as much as “how do we prevent such crimes in the future?”

    They do need to work out how to report the crimes to secular authorities. But a major part of that is having people in the Church who can guide that process, and make a cover up unthinkable.

  5. “The Church recognizes that.”

    Events pertaining to these abuse scandals disprove that statement quite readily. What we have is decades of institutional behavior covering up crimes, obstructing justice and thwarting civil lawsuits.

    “as much as “how do we prevent such crimes in the future?””

    Generally you can’t. As long as adults are with children in situations which are unsupervised, abuse is bound to happen. The real issue is what to do to make reporting it easier for the victims and how to properly cooperate with authorities afterwards. The church is a long way from acting in a responsible manner here.

  6. Same old, same old for the RCC. They’ve learned plenty from corrupt politicians—Nixon, Bill Clinton, Trump—and crooked corporations. From their god? Not so much.

  7. They’ve avoided that for decades. They had their chances and failed. Time for civil authorities in countries with victimized children to take charge.

  8. In order for the “abuse crisis” to be “resurgent”, abuse would have to increase.

    To the contrary, the steps that the American bishops took in 2002 had the desired effect, and new cases of abuse are rare and dealt with promptly.

    To be fair, David Clohessy is a propagandist, not a reporter, and not an objective source.

  9. It is not clear at all.

    But that is what I would expect an angry ex-Catholic anti-Catholic to write.

  10. To the contrary, the 2002 guidance had the desired effect.

    Now the Holy Father needs to put in place the episcopal discipline procedures Bishop Bruskewitz fought for at the 2002 plenary, and the Church as a whole needs to weed out the folks that McCarrick, Weakland, et al got ordained despite their unsuitability.

  11. The abuses and cover-up only point to the deeper issues of a religion based on false history and theology. The slippery slope will only get steeper for the RCC and all other religions.

  12. I partially agree with you. The problems are systemic and change must come from within the system. BUT I don’t think that is possible for the Catholic Church–they are unable to address the foundational problems of their Doctrines that created the climate where abuse could thrive and go unpunished. UNTIL there is some prelate or Theologian that is knowledgeable about Doctrines AND about human psychology AND about how systems/corporations work AND is willing to risk being excommunicated for speaking honestly nothing will happen.

  13. There are two issues here and it is important to keep them separate because they require separate actions. ONE is how to deal with reports of abuse. I agree that Civil authorities need to take over because the Church will continue the coverups if they can.

    SECOND is what changes need to be made within the Church to stop the abuse from happening in the first place.

  14. The Roman Church has had sexual scandal or impropriety since its establishment under Constantine, it is the culture and organizational structure of that denomination that hinders it from making the needed changes. Without deep reform and transparency, the current scandals will just be replaced with a new set of sex scandals no matter who is alive or in charge..

  15. “Without deep reform and transparency”
    Short of a true miracle, there will be no deep reform and transparency. There have been multiple opportunities over the past 20 years, and the Church hierarchy has squashed all of them. There is no reason to expect anything different in the next 20 years. The February meeting in Rome will be a pathetic joke.

  16. And who also knows something about pedophia, sexual orientation, and the corrosive effects of the closet.

  17. The Catholic Church was NOT established under Constantine.

  18. Well, certainly ex-Catholics and anti-Catholics will not be contributing anything positive.

  19. The Civil authorities cannot “take over” a church thanks to the First Amendment.

    They can prosecute crimes, and they do.

    May one assume that “changes need to be made within the Church to stop the abuse from happening in the first place” is that vague because what you really have in mind would never fly?

  20. To cut through the rhetoric, the phrase “the foundational problems of their Doctrines” simply reflects your atheism, your rejection of religion in general, and your particular dislike of Catholicism.

    A Catholic grade school child would recognize that what “some prelate or Theologian that is knowledgeable about Doctrines AND
    about human psychology AND about how systems/corporations work AND is
    willing to risk being excommunicated for speaking honestly” is code for was seen in 1517 in Germany.

    I’d stick to atheism were I you, assuming you know about that then you do about Catholcism.

  21. And yet you’ve been outspoken about your opposition to getting folks like yourself out of the closet and out of the Church.

    Go figure.

  22. In the US and other countries with independent media, abuse is rare since 2002, when The Boston Globe broke its huge story. That’s rather like Willie Sutton taking moral credit for no longer robbing banks, neglecting to note cops were watching him in earnest.

    In other lands, the record is not so clear on continuing abuse, and the RCC certainly hasn’t come clean with past abuse…..which is why it’s an ONGOING scandal.

  23. Attributing the rarity of abuse to the Boston Globe is certainly a bizarre spin on the matter.

    Of course if you work for the Boston Globe …

    The rules and procedures adopted in 2002 probably had a bigger impact.

    The phrase “the RCC certainly hasn’t come clean with past abuse” is meaningless.

  24. This abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church is likely going to get wider in scope, and greater in number of clerics involved and in number of victims. Meetings and prayers are unlikely to stop that from happening. The surface is merely being scratched.

    Over time more and more parishioners that are pooh-poohing this stuff will find their parish, their favorite priest, their beloved nun, or their adored bishop was/is not as they were led to believe.

  25. Mr. Clohessy is tellin’ it like it’s been — and continues to be! The hierarchs, desperate to maintain the status quo, have found themselves painted into a corner by doctrinal and disciplinary precedent and their own FEAR. As long as Catholics continue to toss their hard-earned shekels into the collection plate, the hierarchs will continue to try to buy time. Leaders they are not. When will the laity finally say, “Enough is enough”, and withhold the money??? Vatican II was about ecclesial renewal, an acknowledgement that the Church of Rome needed to be made new again. The last two popes largely succeeded in frustrating renewal by maintaining the elevation of the ordained at the expense of everybody else. If the Church won’t renew, let’s hope it implodes. God knows, it’s well past time.

  26. “The Catholic Church was NOT established under Constantine.”

    In his letter to the Smyrnaeans ca. 110 CE, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writes, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” This is the earliest known reference to “Catholic Church” (some translations use lower case for one or both words). That said, Rome does not have a single bishop at this early date; in his letter to the Romans, unlike those to the other six churches, Ignatius makes no reference to any bishop by name or title. Constantine tolerates Christianity in 313, and Theodosius makes it the state religion in 380. The earliest bishops of Rome did not necessarily enjoy the obedience of bishops outside the Roman province. If a Roman bishop were to try to interfere in the affairs of churches outside his province, their bishops were not unknown to tell him to “MYOB”.

    The “Catholic Church”, i.e., the (purported) communion of local Catholic churches with the pope, is the product of historical evolution.

  27. From the context, our fellow blogger, in using the phrase “need to take over”, is not referring to the State “taking over”, i.e., controlling, the Church. The State has a legitimate interest in policing the Church’s compliance with civil laws enacted to protect vulnerable people and respond to reports of abuse. This State jurisdiction extends to financial and other crimes perpetrated by church officials.

  28. Odd you mention Bruskewitz, the retired bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska who refused to comply with USCCB compliance audits. Just recently, we learned that his successor is now faced with *cleaning up the mess* left by Bruskewitz. See https://journalstar.com/news/local/we-can-t-sit-back-anymore-lincoln-diocese-named-in/article_5bac2449-7ab1-5085-b253-eb3f30ba747e.html.

    You may want to reconsider portraying Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz as some kind of shining star in the clerical sex abuse and episcopal malfeasance scandals rocking the U.S. Catholic Church.

    He ain’t anyone to emulate.

  29. Thank you. If I could give you a thousand UP arrows, I’d do so. Ecclesial reform involves far more than mere procedures and canon law. Doctrinal and disciplinary reforms are crucial to reform and renewal.

  30. God help you in your blindness and ignorance.

  31. To be fair, Mark Connelly is an apologist for a toxic church culture that has elevated the ordained at the expense of the laity. BEWARE.

  32. Thank God for THE BOSTON GLOBE.

    “The phrase ‘the RCC certainly hasn’t come clean with past abuse’ is meaningless.”

    Your response is what is, in fact, “meaningless” here.

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