January 27, 2006


Let’s stop blaming the bishops

The sex abuse crisis of the early 2000s had many adverse consequences. These include an embarrassing scandal that weakened the Church’s moral authority, the reopening of deep wounds for thousands of victims and their families, an assault on the image and self-confidence of the vast majority of priests who are not guilty of abuse, enormous financial settlements (even bankruptcy) in dioceses across the country and much more.

And yet the remarkable resiliency of the Catholic people has, in the main, allowed us to survive the scandal and to remain a vibrant and holy Church. Yes, there are many problems facing the Catholic Church—here in the U.S. and all over the world. But the gates of Hell have not prevailed. The Church is alive and young, Pope Benedict XVI tells us, and we have every reason to be confident that the grace of Christ will sustain the Church as it continues its pilgrim journey into the new millennium.

One unfortunate result of the sex abuse scandal is the loss of credibility that many American bishops have suffered. Ordinary Catholics wonder why the bishops didn’t do a better job of protecting children and disciplining offenders. Critics on the right and on the left seem to agree (for once) that the bishops are to blame—for the sex abuse crisis and whatever else ails the Church. Liberal commentators accuse the American bishops of paying too much attention to the Vatican. Conservatives charge that the bishops pay too little attention to the Vatican. Did the sex abuse scandal really uncover a crisis in the American episcopacy?

We think not. The American bishops are a diverse group of men who carry out their enormously challenging responsibilities with remarkable fidelity (even courage) in light of everything they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Yes, they are human beings with weaknesses and with limitations. Episcopal ordination does not guarantee success in the ministry of teaching, sanctifying or pastoral governance. A bishop has to grow in holiness and in his ability to serve as a good steward of his diocese. Sometimes, he makes mistakes. If he is faithful to his calling, the bishop learns from his mistakes and carries on.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has been faithfully served by a diverse group of bishops since our founding as a missionary diocese in Vincennes in 1834. Our archdiocese has been served by bishops who were pioneers, builders, extroverts, introverts, leaders, preservers, teachers, administrators, pastors, saints and sinners. All loved the Church. All worked to shepherd their flock in fidelity to the Catholic Church in light of the challenges and opportunities of the eras in which they served.

The bishops who have served our archdiocese over the years have been very much like the bishops who served in other dioceses nationwide during comparable eras. They have been faithful overseers (from the Greek word episkopoi) of their local Churches. They have been consistent (if not always brilliant) teachers; they have been advocates (and often exemplars) of holiness; and they have governed the Church reasonably well over the years from the pioneer days, through decades of active anti-Catholicism, to the building years of the 20th century, to the breathtaking Vatican II experience and the transitions that followed, through the amazing, long pontificate of John Paul II, until now—the fifth year of the new millennium.

We think that, in general, the Church in the United States has been well-served by its bishops. Without question, the sex abuse crisis made it absolutely clear that there is no room in the priesthood (or anywhere else for that matter) for anyone who would harm a young person. And it showed the American bishops (and the rest of us) that the old ways of dealing with these things were woefully inadequate and must never to be repeated. We believe that the audits conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops show that the vast majority of bishops have learned their lesson (the hard way). We sincerely hope that, as a result, no young person will ever again be abused by anyone (clergy, religious or lay) who is affiliated with the Catholic Church.

We think it’s time to stop blaming the bishops for everything that ails us as a Church. All of us—clergy, religious and laity—have roles to play in the life of the Church. We’re in this together as disciples of Jesus Christ and as members of the one family of God. Yes, we need to hold the bishops accountable (and they must do the same for us). But as family (as Church) we also need to support one another—in good times and in bad.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.) †


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