From the October, 2002 issue of Touchstone

Episcopal Oversights by Kenneth D. Whitehead

Episcopal Oversights

The Crisis in the Catholic Church Extends Far Beyond Sex Scandals

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

The long-awaited meeting of the Catholic bishops of the United States, after months of media revelations of priestly scandals and episcopal cover-ups, finally took place under intense public scrutiny in Dallas on June 13–15. As was surely inevitable, the “zero tolerance” policy towards the sexual abuse of children and young people was not, as such, enacted. This was the policy vociferously being demanded by victims’ groups and other interested parties and strongly seconded by the media.

For one thing, as most media reporting failed to make clear, the laicization of priests in the Catholic Church, or their defrocking, as the secular world prefers to call it, whether for sexual abuse or for other reasons, can only be carried out in accordance with canon law—which bishops’ conferences voting on “policies,” even under the pressure of grave public scandal, cannot alter or abolish by themselves.

For another thing, the bishops were looking over their shoulders at what Rome was likely to sanction. In this case, it is the Holy See, not the votaries of more “democracy” in the Church, that is insisting that even accused abusers have rights and reputations and that strict due process is called for even when particularly heinous acts are involved. Rome is not, in fact, likely to approve without modification what the bishops decided upon in Dallas.

Nevertheless, under unprecedented public and media pressure, the bishops enacted the closest thing to zero tolerance: Even one single act of sexual abuse by a priest—past, present, or future—is to result in immediate removal from active ministry of any kind, and even if a priest thus removed is not actually laicized, he will still not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb, or to present himself as a priest.

Moreover, dioceses will now be required both to reach out to victims and their families and to have procedures in place to deal with any further accusations that are made. These procedures will include diocesan review boards that will have some lay members. A national Office for Child and Youth Protection will coordinate and oversee diocesan efforts. Dioceses will automatically report any “allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the public authorities,” and the law will then take over to investigate and evaluate the evidence.

Finally Able to Act

All this is pretty strong. It strains the imagination, in fact, to try to think of many other sectors of our generally permissive society that require anything as stringent. Press reports stating that the bishops fell back on some kind of “compromise solution,” or victims’ groups claiming that the bishops did not go far enough, are quite off the mark.

Of course, given the glare of public scrutiny and the enormous pressure on the bishops built up as a result of months of serial revelations of sexual misdeeds by priests and even by some bishops—more than 200 priests and four bishops have had to resign since the first of the year, with probably more to come—there was little chance that the bishops would opt for anything that was not severe. The bishops had to prove they were serious, and, for the moment, they did. It was certainly not their last word on the subject, but it represented essential damage control. Even though their action was forced upon them, it is still salutary to see that they were able to act.

And it is all just as well. The continuing revelations that men ordained to Christ’s priesthood could engage in this kind of evil and shameful conduct were outdone only by the even more embarrassing revelations of bishops complacently—and, it would seem, mindlessly—giving passes to such grossly immoral behavior as if it were not really very serious, and then going on to reassign the culprits to positions where they could continue with their predatory and immoral actions.

The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, was surely on the mark when he declared to his fellow bishops:

We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and re-assigned them to communities where they continued to abuse. We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities because the law did not require this. We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.

Bishop Gregory received a standing ovation from his fellow bishops for such strong words as these, and it is to be hoped that this applause reflected a true realization and resolve on the part of the American bishops that will henceforth ensure that certain types of behavior can no longer be allowed or tolerated in the Catholic Church in America. Certain acts must be subject to correction by the bishops, who in Catholic belief hold authority in the Church from Christ.

The fact that the bishops did not enact any formal policies concerning their own neglect and misbehavior—although they appointed yet another commission to study the question—is much less important than whether this ugly crisis has truly proved to be, for each one of them, an experience of mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and whether they finally came to understand that what had become an unfortunate episcopal policy of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” in the Catholic Church in America can no longer stand.

A Restricted Response

It is troubling, though, that the bishops in Dallas placed virtually the entire onus upon priests and did not address the responsibility of the bishops themselves for the whole sorry mess. After all, only a very small minority of priests ever engaged in the immoral and even criminal behavior that has now been exposed and is rightly being stigmatized, but we are told that as many as two-thirds of the bishops have at one time or another engaged in transferring guilty priests and thus exculpating, if not enabling them. The responsibility of the bishops thus looms large, and their future conduct, individually and collectively, will be a test of how serious they were in Dallas.

Some of the other proposals made at the Dallas meeting, such as those from victims’ groups and other interested parties calling for “shared authority” or “lay oversight,” were less pertinent. It may be understandable in the present climate that the bishops should have seen fit to appoint a permanent national lay oversight commission headed by Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. In the end, however, the Catholic bishops cannot share their authority—which again, in the church’s belief, they have from Christ. They are the overseers! Even if, up to now, they seem to have been more prone to overlook than to oversee, it is nevertheless the latter task that remains uniquely theirs in their office as successors to the apostles, again by the commission of Christ himself. Their office belongs to the essential structure of the Church as Catholics understand and believe it. What is needed is not some scheme for shared authority that might prove to be bogus, but faithful and courageous bishops determined to use their authority to uphold authentic Catholic faith and morals, especially among their priests, and to summon all the faithful to greater fidelity and holiness, while practicing it themselves.

If at least some bishops are now firmly resolved not to allow today’s scandals to recur, then it is to be hoped that their newfound resolve will not be limited to the single matter of “sexual abuse of children and young people.” This was, understandably, the focus of their meeting in Dallas. But there are not a few other similar problems in the Church today that deserve—indeed, cry out for—the same kind of attention, seriousness, and resolve that the bishops exhibited in the matter of clerical sexual abuse.

From the outset, the American bishops have largely responded to the questions raised by the crisis as they were narrowly framed by the secular media. The media initially defined the problem as primarily pedophilia in the priesthood; the guilty priests were to be exposed not so much for engaging in behavior that, according to Catholic moral teaching, was evil, immoral, and verboten, but for engaging in abusive behavior with minors that was “non-consensual.” Catholic priests became fair game for exposure, of course, because they are supposed to be chaste and celibate, and hence they are exposed as liars and hypocrites as well as predators once they engage in any kind of sexual activity. Precisely because of the church’s strict rules on chastity and celibacy, sexual activity of any kind by priests always entails deception and dishonesty as well as unchastity. So there is no way, for example, that homosexual priests could ever “come out” in the way that contemporary society currently applauds for others.

Similarly, the insensitivity and even callousness of both priests and bishops towards the plight of victims of sexual abuse was fair game; indeed, it proved to be a special bonanza for the media, as a consequence of which the bishops have had to abase themselves.


While the media were generally happy to go after priests and the Catholic Church, many reporters and commentators were nevertheless quite reluctant to dwell on the question of homosexuality in the priesthood, as well as on sexual morality generally. These issues came up almost in spite of the media, and some commentators even back-pedaled after their first enthusiastic exposures of the Church. After all, homosexuality itself is not supposed to be bad any longer; “gay” is supposed to be “good,” just as virtually all sex today is supposed to be permissive—so long as it is also consensual.

In the present post-sexual-revolution climate in America, it is more than an anomaly that the Catholic Church should have come under such intense and sustained attacks. Until the attacks began, the Boy Scouts of America, for example, were being excoriated by the same media, as well as by the secular culture at large, for not allowing what the bishops were suddenly being attacked for allowing, namely, the exposure of young people to possible sexual predators.

We need not expect consistency from the media, of course. There were undoubtedly some who were happy enough to go after the Church on any grounds—and, certainly the Church and the bishops have deserved to be as severely faulted in public as they have been for allowing the sexual incidents that have been so widely reported.

What is disappointing, however, is the degree to which the Catholic bishops responded to the problem only as it had been framed for them by the media: It was the “sexual abuse of children and young people” to which the bishops almost exclusively directed their attention. This is the phrase that recurred in Bishop Gregory’s address; it similarly appears in the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” that the bishops approved. It is what the Dallas meeting was all about, in fact.

Everything in the bishops’ new charter applies only to priest-abusers as defined by the present crisis. There is no suggestion that there might be larger causes at work or that the bishops’ authority as vigilant overseers might need to be extended to other kinds of wrongdoing in the Church, considering all the harm that has been caused by their long toleration of this wrongdoing.

The bishops voted down, for example, a proposal by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, to look more seriously into the dominant role of homosexual priests in the present crisis. They were apparently determined not to go beyond the parameters of the crisis as defined by the media exposures and the popular interpretations placed on them. The only concession to the patent, indeed, blatant fact that homosexual priests have constituted by far the greater part of the problem seems to have been the addition of the phrase “young people” to the word “children” in the title of their charter—the bishops thus admitted that it was not just pedophilia, in other words. (In the provision of their charter relating to an apostolic visitation of seminaries, the bishops do pledge to “focus on the question of human formation for celibate chastity,” and perhaps this pledge will alleviate, at least to some extent, the church’s enormous—though still officially unacknowledged—problem of homosexual priests.)

Sadly, just as the bishops only acted because they were forced to by public exposure, so they determinedly limited their actions only to what the secular culture decided the primary problem was. Catholic moral teaching does not seem to have entered in very strongly anywhere; the bishops, especially those speaking to the media, hardly ever mentioned it; the charter itself speaks of alleged offenders being referred “for appropriate medical and psychological evaluation”—no morality, only medicine!

And only with the greatest reluctance, and under the pressure of irate public opinion, did the bishops move to correct those whom the culture, in effect, had identified as being at fault. They apparently have no plans, or even many thoughts, about what other problems or wrongdoing in the Church might need to be addressed as a result of the exposure of sexual abuse.

Pattern of Inaction

The present crisis of sexual abuse of children and the young is only one of several acute problems in the Catholic Church that urgently call for serious episcopal attention and action. One of the principal reasons the bishops had to be forced to take corrective action was that, until the public exposure, the bishops were not acting properly to deal with those of their priests who were abusing children; they were not correcting the wrongdoers. In hindsight, they appear to have been largely unwilling to take corrective action. At the very least it is indisputable that they never did take such action until finally forced by public opinion to do so.

Worse, the Catholic bishops of the United States mostly stopped taking corrective action in large areas of the church’s life 35 or 40 years ago. Living in the same “no fault” secular culture as the rest of us, the bishops discovered long ago that almost any time they attempted to take corrective disciplinary action against either individuals or groups, the result was unfavorable publicity for the Church; the Church was quickly accused of such things as “witch hunting” and “cracking down.”

In this atmosphere, the average bishop soon came to view unfavorable publicity, no matter what the basis for it, as among the worst things that could happen to the Church. Whether or not the Catholic bishops still feared God was not always clear; what has long been clear is that they generally fear and loath almost any attention from the media or “looking bad” in the eyes of that media.

More than that, once their practice of not taking serious corrective action towards those under their authority became well established, the bishops tended not to take such action even when there was little or no danger of unfavorable public disclosure or scandal; they had gotten into the habit of no longer correcting anybody. For many years now, most US Catholic bishops have been content to sit at the top of the church’s administrative structure without requiring that those farther down in the system be Catholic; they have tolerated all kinds of aberrations and have sometimes seemed only to want peace and quiet, with no boats ever to be rocked for any reason.

All this eventually became a common feature of modern episcopal practice, and new bishops picked it up almost as soon as they were ordained. Another characteristic of the prevailing episcopal management style was that no bishop ever publicly criticized another bishop (this rule seems still to obtain). It came to seem preferable to let ride even serious violations and transgressions against Catholic teaching and discipline rather than risk public criticism of the Church—or perhaps even risk any possible strife or turmoil within the Church that might turn out to be unpleasant, or what is today called “unchristian.” The main thing, apparently, was to be “nice”—and to be liked. The non-judgmentalism so prevalent in the culture at large came to be an imperative within the Catholic Church as well.

The Rise of Dissent

The growth of this passive and indulgent attitude among the Catholic hierarchy coincided with the rise of the dissent, rebellion, and general chutzpah among modern Catholics that came in with the revolutionary culture of the 1960s. In this new climate, encouraging people to “question authority,” as the popular bumper sticker expressed it, not to speak of overtly denying Catholic teaching or violating church discipline outright, too often was given a pass—just as the evil behavior of abusive priests apparently began to be given a pass around the same time.

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, as is well known, there arose many instances of abuses in the reformed Liturgy, of lapses in discipline in the priesthood and religious orders as Roman collars and religious habits were abandoned, of Catholic colleges and universities openly and with impunity declaring their independence of the Church, and of other fads in Catholic education, such as the wholesale adoption of secular models of so-called humanistic and explicit sex education. Brightly colored new catechetical texts came out bearing little resemblance to the traditional catechesis of the Church. Over the years Catholic parents who lodged complaints with the bishops or their religious education offices about defective catechesis or sex education often got the same frigid reception that the victims of sexual abuse have since complained about—and were generally subjected to the same kind of stone-walling.

Here again, the bishops were depending on their catechetical “experts”—by this time mostly trained by dissident theologians—just as they have now been shown to have depended on their lawyers to tell them how to respond to victims of sex abuse and their families. Those Catholic pastors, parents, and teachers who tried to complain to the bishops about bad catechetics or explicit sex education were out of luck, since there was no Boston Globe or its equivalent to expose these “scandals” in the Church in a way the bishops could not ignore.

The same episcopal complaisance occurred in the Catholic colleges and universities that wanted to sever their formal ties with the Church (while retaining the name “Catholic” for other purposes). The bishops’ conference took the part of the leaders of these errant institutions in opposing the inclusion of any canons on universities in the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law. When that effort failed, the bishops simply neglected to enforce the canons in question. After Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution on the Catholic university, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in 1990, the bishops dithered and temporized for a decade before finally enacting norms requiring, among other things, theologians to have an ecclesiastical mandatum to teach theology. Although compelled by Rome to institute this requirement, there is little evidence to date that many bishops are requiring theologians to have such a mandatum—or that they are penalizing or removing those theologians who do not have one and even refuse to apply for one.

At the time these innovations in Catholic life and practice were occurring, from the 1960s through the present, they were usually justified by reference to the famous (fictional) “spirit of Vatican II.” Vatican II was held to justify just about anything, and the bishops themselves were usually quick to validate innovations in Catholic life as indeed being called for by the council, whether or not they were. They tended to preside over such things in a spirit of “benign neglect” and rarely let on that they were even aware that anything was amiss. Corrective action by them was rarely taken, and when it was, it was usually directed against Catholic traditionalists or other “extremists.” The bishops, like the culture at large, seemed not to notice any “extremism” except that said to be “on the right.”

Tolerance & Approval of Dissent

What was already becoming a pattern of episcopal silence and inaction, then, even in the face of open and express challenges to Catholic faith, morals, and discipline, became powerfully re-enforced by the massive public dissent that greeted Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in July 1968. On this occasion, as is well known, hundreds of Catholic theologians, canonists, and other academics publicly dissented from the pope’s traditional teaching that every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. This, of course, meant no artificial birth control (which, meanwhile, had become as essential to what was considered the good life as owning an automobile or having air conditioning).

The official reaction of the Catholic bishops of the United States to the massive theological dissent from Humanae Vitae by their theologians, canonists, and other practitioners of the sacred sciences was to include in the pastoral letter they issued in November 1968 what they called “norms of licit dissent.” Acting as if the crisis of theological dissent they faced was nothing more than theoretical and scholarly disagreement with “non-essential” church teachings by some theologians, instead of the widespread open revolt against the authority of the Church, and their own authority, which it actually was, they decided that sometimes dissent could be licit—and they carefully spelled this out in a way that bore no resemblance to the crisis they faced. Confronted with rebellion, they pretended it was merely an unimportant disagreement, and this has largely remained the official stance of the hierarchy on the subject from that day to this.

Following that same near-universal theological dissent from Humanae Vitae (which was quickly taken up by the Catholic laity as permission and justification for their abandonment of Catholic teaching on sexual morality—to which the polls attest so eloquently today), the bishops seem to have tacitly—though it was certainly strongly implied in the issuance of their so-called “norms of licit dissent”—taken a collective decision that dissent from the pope’s anti-birth-control encyclical would never bar one from holding an official position, and even enjoying preferment, in the Catholic Church in the United States.

They themselves in their official statements, of course, never dissented from or disputed the papal teaching, but they allowed those holding offices in the Church, and teaching and preaching in their names, to do so indiscriminately. This has been the case in the Church in the United States from 1968 to the present. There have been few cases in which an American bishop has ever disciplined or corrected anyone for dissenting from Humanae Vitae. When obliged to by Rome, as in the case of the removal of dissenter Father Charles E. Curran from the faculty of the Catholic University of America in the late 1980s, the bishops were willing to go along. But they did not initiate such disciplinary cases, and they have apparently considered the teaching of Humanae Vitae to be a “non-essential,” open dissent from which simply did not require any corrective action from them.

Ignoring the Pope

This same pattern of dissent, uncorrected, was likely to persist into the 1990s, and it did. In 1994, when Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio declaring that the Catholic teaching excluding the ordination of women to the sacred priesthood was a definitive and irreformable teaching, a similar pattern of dissent from the church’s “official” theological society was the principal response. The Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) commissioned a “study,” not openly challenging the pope’s teaching so much as questioning whether the teaching was definitive (as the pope had said it was). At the conclusion of the “study” in question, the CTSA tranquilly forwarded its dissenting conclusions to the heads of both the US and Canadian bishops’ conferences.

The effect of this CTSA action, of course, was to keep alive the female ordination question, which the pope had so earnestly requested be closed—so much for respect for the judgments of the supreme magisterium of the Church! No response ever came from the bishops’ conferences to the open CTSA challenge. It was as if massive dissent from irreformable church teaching by a majority of the theologians of North America was not even a problem that merited the bishops’ attention. Open rebellion by a majority of their theologians was apparently not an issue the bishops cared to deal with. Rather, they seemed to be pretending that these dissenting theologians simply did not exist—just as they seem often to have pretended that sexually active and exploitative priests were not anywhere to be found.

Over the years, Pope John Paul II reminded the US bishops several times that dissent tolerated by them undermined their authority. In 1990, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, Donum Veritatis, which expressly excluded the kind of dissent that was by then common in America. Among other things, this Roman instruction finally and quietly laid to rest the “norms of licit dissent” that the American bishops had so mistakenly approved in their 1968 pastoral letter. But who in the ranks of the theologians and the bishops was paying attention to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith any longer? This Roman instruction excluding dissent was simply itself dissented from.

Similarly, in 1998, in another motu proprio entitled Ad Tuendam Fidem, Pope John Paul II added canonical penalties to the code of canon law for the kind of dissent practiced by perhaps the majority of American canonists and theologians. None of this caused so much as a ripple in the episcopal waters. There was no plan even to apply these new canonical penalties for dissent—any more than the university canons had ever been enforced. The now long-established episcopal pattern of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” persisted. Nor have there been any indications in the course of the present crisis that the bishops are unduly concerned about today’s widespread dissent from and even denial of Catholic teaching on sexual morality to be found among their priests and people, egged on by many of their theologians.

During his meeting with the cardinals in Rome in April, Pope John Paul II attempted to nudge them towards a wider understanding of the present crisis as extending beyond sexual “immaturity” or mere “addictions” or “pedophilia.” “People need to know,” the Holy Father declared, “that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality.” The statement issued at the conclusion of the Vatican meeting with cardinals also contained the following: “Pastors of the Church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care” (emphasis added). Following this Vatican meeting, however, the vice president of the USCCB, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, was quoted in the press as disclaiming any intent on the part of the American bishops to correct dissenters.

Neglect of Teaching

The phenomenon of dissent, however, as Pope John Paul II clearly sees, has a direct bearing on the crisis of sexual abuse in the priesthood. The failure of American bishops over the last generation and more to uphold authentic Catholic teaching on sexual morality, while allowing many who teach and preach in their name to offer variant teachings, has allowed potential wrongdoers among both clergy and laity to get the impression that what they happen to be tempted by is no longer necessarily wrong, according to theological opinion allowed to circulate within the Church. Some of the guilty priest-abusers have specifically said that they had come to doubt, or had even ceased to believe, the church’s teachings on sexual morality.

Yet there is no evidence from the Dallas meeting that the American bishops are concerned about the problem of widespread dissent from and disregard of Catholic teaching regarding sexual morality. They apparently intend to do nothing about it—just as they did nothing about the problem of criminal sexual misbehavior by priests for so long, until media exposure forced them to.

This continued neglect of the church’s authentic teaching on sexuality has already had devastating consequences in the present crisis, and it cannot fail to have further consequences. If the Church has taught wrongly that every marriage act must be open to the transmission of life, as today’s theological dissenters believe and teach, and as the bishops, in effect, allow—that is, if there is no necessary connection between the use of our human sexual faculties and the procreation and education of children in Christian marriage—then there is similarly no necessary connection between the use of these same sexual faculties and marriage itself: Sex need not be limited to marriage, in other words.

Moreover, by this same logic, the use of the sexual faculties for mere sexual “satisfaction” or “expression” need not be limited to actions between those of different sexes; sexual acts carried out on oneself or between people of the same sex cannot be excluded (if there is no necessary connection between sex and procreation). It all hangs together.

The same logic applies if we try to exclude sex between adults and children. This is why the case had to be made, and reiterated at such length, pretending that the real wrong in the sex abuse by priests lay in the exploitation by older authority figures of non-consenting children or children incapable of consent.

The Only Answer

But this is a grossly inadequate interpretation that won’t wash. The bishops must finally realize that there is no way to avoid the conclusion that the affirmation of the authentic teaching of the Church on sexual morality is the only answer to the present crisis that now engulfs the Church.

The relevance of all this to our present crisis of supposed pedophilia in the priesthood, or even of the “sexual abuse of children and young people,” should be evident: The crisis cannot be limited in this manner. The crisis extends far beyond sexual abuse by priests. Nor do the measures the bishops enacted in Dallas do more than begin to address the real problems.

Perhaps the magnitude of the current crisis will produce momentum that will force the bishops to deal directly not only with the urgent problem of homosexuality among the clergy, but also with the problem of the current massive non-adherence of Catholics generally to the church’s authentic and unchanging teachings on sex and chastity and Christian marriage.

As our decadent secular culture sinks ever more into the morass of wide-open permissive sexuality, with nearly every kind of sexual “expression” allowed and even encouraged, it is the teaching of the Catholic Church—especially the prophetic witness of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, now supplemented by Pope John Paul II with his “theology of the body” and his encyclical Evangelium Vitae—that can still give hope. It is time for the Catholic bishops of the United States, who are commissioned by their sacred ordinations to uphold these teachings, to move beyond their narrowly defined issue of “sexual abuse of children and young people,” and to affirm the fullness of Catholic truth about human sexuality and marriage to an unbelieving world.

Kenneth D. Whitehead is the 2004 recipient of the Blessed Frederic Ozanam Award for Catholic Social Action of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists (SCSS). He writes frequently on Catholic social and moral issues.

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