Pope Francis’s letter to the Catholic faithful this week was remarkable in that the Holy Father apologized not only for the sexual abuses carried out by Roman Catholic priests but also for the coverup of that abuse carried out by Roman Catholic bishops. “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced,” Francis wrote. “To acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough” he added, promising to make “all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable” and expressing deep regret that “we have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary.”
Those are welcome words. But unless they are backed up by action, they will be meaningless. The episcopacy as an institution has been corrupted. A culture of silence allowed a culture of abuse to flourish. Bishops consumed with what the pope called “the thirst for power” have through both action and inaction allowed evil to spread through the church. That evil must be rooted out.
It is time for the Catholic Church to experience its own #MeToo moment. And it should start here in Washington – the modern symbol of earthly power. Theodore McCarrick, the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, faces credible allegations that he abused not only a 16-year-old altar boy and an 11-year-old boy whose family McCarrick knew but also countless seminarians and young priests who were under his authority. (He has denied abusing the boys and refused to comment on the other allegations.)
McCarrick is the Harvey Weinstein of the Catholic Church. Who knew these allegations against him and failed to act? San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, for one. A few years ago, McElroy was approached by Richard Sipe, an expert on clergy abuse, who said McCarrick and nearly a dozen other priests and bishops abused children and seminarians. Sipe was so disturbed by what he perceived as McElroy’s lack of interest during their meetings that in 2016 he sent a 13-page letter – delivered by a process server – in which he told McElroy that “Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been reported by numerous seminarians and priests of sexual advances and activity.… I have interviewed twelve seminarians and priests who attest to propositions, harassment, or sex with McCarrick, who has stated, ‘I do not like to sleep alone.’ One priest incardinated in McCarrick’s Archdiocese of Newark was taken to bed for sex and was told, ‘this is how priests do it in the U.S.’”
A spokesman for McElroy says he asked Sipe for more information and that he “was given essentially gossip, not evidence.” But Sipe explained to McElroy that the victims were afraid to come forward. “None so far has found the ability to speak openly at the risk of reputation and retaliation” he wrote, adding, “One priest was told by the chancery office, ‘if you speak with the press we will crush you.’” McElroy did nothing. Sipe shared his letter with the papal nuncio and the pontifical commission for the protection of minors, led by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who also failed to act. A New York priest, Father Boniface Ramsey, says he wrote a similar letter in June 2015 to O’Malley, who says he never saw it but should have. Who buried that letter? And who else failed to act?
According to a Pennsylvania grand jury report, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, moved predator priests around the Diocese of Pittsburgh when he was the bishop there and silenced victims with settlements that included confidentiality agreements. His resignation letter is on Francis’s desk, as all bishops must submit their resignations at 75. The Holy Father simply needs to accept it. The same day Francis issued his letter, Wuerl’s successor in Pittsburgh, Bishop David Zubik, appeared on Fox News’ “Special Report,” where he told Brett Baier, “There was no coverup.” Did Zubik not read the pope’s letter, which refers to “cover[ing] up,” “silenc[ing],” “ignor[ing]” and “deception” by bishops a total of eight times? Even if he somehow failed to, Zubik knows there was a coverup because he was at the epicenter of it as director of clergy personnel under Wuerl.
The bishops were responsible for protecting priests and parishioners but were more concerned with protecting their own positions and power. The bishops should have trembled Wednesday when they heard the first reading for that day’s Mass in every Catholic Church throughout the world: “Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! …My sheep have been given over to pillage, and …have become food for every wild beast …because my shepherds did not look after my sheep.… I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding.… I will save my sheep.”
Holy Father, put a stop to their shepherding. Save your sheep.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.