A crisis point in Church history

Abuse scandals to persist, expert says


The leader of the United States Catholic bishops’ board that provides advice on child protection said it will take the Church “at least one or two generations” to get through the clergy abuse crisis currently engulfing it. 

Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People. Photo: Assumption College Office of Communications

Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, told Catholic Digest that the problem is not something that’s going to be easily fixed even if the Church has all of the mechanisms, protocols, and policies in place. 

“Until there’s a change of heart and until there’s a real change in the attitude of the leadership, it’s going to take a while,” said Cesareo, who serves as president of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

“And … unfortunately, it’s emerging in a moment in history where religion is already marginalized. Where there’s already a large percentage of un-churched [people] … and this only serves to add to that lack of respect, lack of credibility that people place in the institution.” 

Cesareo’s interview with Catholic Digest occurred in January ahead of the Feb. 21–24 meeting at the Vatican where the heads of bishops’ conferences worldwide were to discuss the protection of minors.  

2002 charter

Cesareo told the U.S. bishops last November that the board recommended that the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (commonly called the Dallas Charter, which the U.S. bishops approved in June 2002) be revisited, that they reconsider revisions recommended by the board to the charter, and that they include bishops in the document. 

Cesareo said bishops currently are not accountable. If they are not implementing the charter fully or following it, there is no mechanism of accountability there. He said the result has been a loss of credibility of the bishops and the Church. The charter only applies to priests and deacons; it does not apply to bishops. Under canon law, only the pope can discipline a bishop. Also, the USCCB is not a governing body, and the charter is not Church law. 

Because of the charter, and the seriousness with which the bishops have taken to implement it, Cesareo said the Church has seen a significant decline in allegations against clerics involving current minors. He said more than 2 million children, millions of parents, 4 million volunteers, and 98 percent of clergy have undergone “safe environment” training. The charter requires that each diocese have such a program. 

“It’s a document that has been good, has allowed the Church to make significant progress, has addressed the issue, but it is not a perfect document. And the fact that the bishops are not included in the document is a major, major gap,” he said. 

The outlook today

Problems continue in the Church, as the events of last summer proved when allegations of abuse going back decades by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick surfaced. Archbishop McCarrick later resigned from the College of Cardinals. Then, in August there was the release of a report by a Pennsylvania grand jury that investigated abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses. Most of the report covered cases that happened before the early 2000s, during an approximate 70-year period.

“[Where] we’re at right now is mostly the failure of leadership, and what we have experienced since last summer and what we continue to see is the lack of transparency and accountability of the episcopacy,” Cesareo said. 

Cesareo said there most certainly should be a universal mechanism to deal with an allegation against a sitting bishop. 

“If there’s going to be a mechanism that can be applied universally, that really should come from Rome,” he said. “But I think what is very important is whatever mechanism is eventually developed has to include the laity [in the solution].” 

Cesareo said one could argue that there already is a mechanism in place (i.e., canon law and its procedures on how to discipline a bishop). However, he said, “clearly the Cardinal McCarrick situation demonstrated that [it] did not happen. So it cannot be left solely in the hands of Rome. It cannot be left solely in the hands of the episcopacy.” 

Allegations against a bishop that would apply aren’t just ones of sexual abuse but also the misuse of power and sexual harassment. Cesareo recommends that there ought to be a mechanism for the laity to receive the allegation, investigate it, and then pass it on to the papal nuncio (the ambassador of the Holy See to the United States), who then passes it on to Rome for the final disciplinary action and decision. 

“If you don’t engage the laity in this at all, I’m afraid that it’s going to continue to be the same as it always has been — and we have seen that doesn’t work,” he said. 

Bishop Christopher Coyne, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, and Bishop Timothy Doherty during a Nov. 12, 2018, press conference at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore. Photo: Christine Rousselle/CNA

Additional investigations

As of this writing, an increasing number of civil authorities are investigating the Church in the U.S. The Washington Post reported Nov. 22 that attorneys general in 14 states and the District of Columbia have announced investigations and demanded records. There is also a federal investigation in Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press. 

Cesareo said he recommended that every bishop make all abuse cases public, and if they don’t do it, the civil authorities will. Some bishops have proactively opened their files. 

“Everything has to come out into the open in order for us to move forward,” he said. “Otherwise what happens is that we get these little dribs and drabs, and as a result of that, this crisis just continues … and it becomes more and more difficult for the Church to be able to recover from it.”

Cesareo said he doesn’t see any religious liberty issues by the civil authorities investigating dioceses because “these are crimes, and if we’re not going to be forthcoming about these crimes, those … who are charged to oversee justice have to do what they have to do.” 

Going forward

Cesareo advises Catholics to voice their opinions with their local bishops and the papal nuncio. He said the hierarchy has to hear from the laity, many of whom may feel a real sense of helplessness. 

“They have to see both the level of frustration and anger that people are feeling, but also an openness to the desire of the laity, the people in the pews, to step up and help,” he said. 

Cesareo said Pope Benedict XVI used to speak about the co-responsibility of the laity, meaning that the laity — by virtue of their Baptism — have a responsibility for the Church that has to be taken seriously and acknowledged. 

“There can’t be this silence that, unfortunately, has been the response, particularly from Rome,” he said. 

Regarding how the scandals have impacted his own faith, Cesareo said one “can’t let this crisis in the Church lead to a crisis of faith because our faith is not in a particular bishop, or a particular pope, or a particular clergyman, or the clergy in general. Our faith is in Jesus Christ.” 

Cesareo, a historian, said the Catholic Church has undergone periods of scandal and low points throughout its history, and most often the Church was able to go through a reform process that allowed it to emerge renewed and strengthened. 

“It’s more a frustration in whether or not the leadership truly understands the gravity of the situation and understands that this culture of silence has to be changed,” he said. …

“The way in which leadership is being exercised has to be changed and that the victim, the child, has to always be at the center — as opposed to self-preservation or the preservation of the institution, because we’ve seen it doesn’t work. It actually hurts the institution more than being honest and open and transparent when the situation is occurring and emerges.”

Cesareo said that, in time, the Church will get through this period of scandal. 

“That’s the promise of the Holy Spirit, right? The gates of hell will not prevail against it.” 

To learn more:

Read the Dallas Charter, find out about who is on the 13-member National Review Board, and get other information about child protection in the Church in the United States at CDmag.net/2TAmlEr. 

Watch a portion of Francesco Cesareo’s November 2018 speech to the U.S. bishops at CDmag.net/2FIVeUc.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Catholic Digest is published by Bayard, Inc. The Augustinians of the Assumption sponsor Bayard and Assumption College. This story appears in the March 2019 issue of Catholic Digest that went to press before the Feb. 16 announcement that Pope Francis had approved the laicization of former Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.


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