I promised one of my faithful readers that I would spell out a little more clearly what I learned from reading the now world-famous report.
I. The documents from the confidential clergy files abound with euphemisms for sexual abuse. Rather than identify the crime of sexual abuse explicitly, bishops and vicars refer to predator priests’ “issues,” “struggles,” “failures,” or “difficulties.”
This custom of euphemizing the crime of sexual abuse continues unabated. No bishop, including the pope, has yet to refer to a single particular crime in any public statement. I think we can safely assume that every diocese on earth contains evidence pertaining to at least one such crime. Yet no bishop or pope has spoken publicly about even one.
Instead, euphemisms. In Cardinal Wuerl’s infamous interview with Father Thomas Rosica, they spoke of Theodore McCarrick’s “failures.” In a PBS NewHour interview, the current bishop of Erie, PA, spoke of priests “acting out.”
But we are not dealing with overgrown children “acting out.” We are not dealing with men “struggling” or “failing.” The grand-jury report considers particular CRIMES, men sexually abusing minors in particular circumstance, at particular times. Crimes that deserve the punishment of significant jail time.
II. Which brings us to the Huge Gap in enforcement. Police officers, investigators, prosecutors, and judges reasonably insist on criminal statutes of limitations. Because investigating and prosecuting old crimes poses enormous challenges for them.
Nonetheless, victims of sexual abuse by clergy clamor for some kind of justice, even many decades after the fact. And obviously they are right to do so. All we can offer them right now is an invisible process that take place in Rome and has the maximum penalty of: laicization.
So, when the civil authorities cannot act, we need some kind of in-house way to prosecute sex abusers who have committed their crimes as ministers of our Church. A process open to the victims, and to the public. A process that could mete out sentences of imprisonment in jails that we would operate.
Granted, a convicted and sentenced priest, deacon, seminarian (or lay minister) could theoretically elude punishment simply by walking away, since the Church has no power to compel anyone to do anything by bodily force. But at least we would have acted as an institution in such a way as to demonstrate that we care about justice for sex-abuse victims.
…It seems to me that the USCCB and the Holy See have passed the buck back and forth to each other over and over and over again. The USCCB produces vague policies, and stipulates that the Holy See must enforce them. The Holy See makes strangely spiritualized statements, and insists that the local bishops’ conferences must turn them into practical realities.
I feel like this ball bouncing back and forth, with nothing ever really getting resolved, is the story of my difficult priestly life. And I am sure that, with the current incumbents, the exact same thing will happen again over the course of the upcoming months.
So I propose this:
We already have one Pope-Emeritus, so we might as well have two.
Before stepping down, let Pope Francis establish the process for the election of his successor. The Cardinals will not convene in the Sistine Chapel. Rather:
Let the names of all the Catholic parish priests on earth go into a very large bucket. Let someone wade into the slips of paper and pick 201 names at random. The conclave will consists of those priests as electors. If the chosen Successor of St. Peter is not yet a bishop, let Popes-Emeritus Benedict and Francis ordain him a bishop in the chapel of their little home behind St. Peter’s. Then the new pope can step out onto the loggia.
May it please the new pope to do so, let him ask for the resignations of all the world’s bishops. Let him accept them as he may, as he works through the one mandate he has. Namely, to follow a similar procedure in every diocese. Let the names of all the parish priests in the diocese go into a hat. Let eleven names be chosen. Let those eleven elect a new bishop.
Then, in five years or so, when this process is complete, let the new pope convene an ecumenical council to celebrate the seventeenth centenary of the Council of Nicaea.
I do not promise that we would find ourselves in some kind of perfect situation if all this happened. We can’t expect perfection on earth, even in God’s holy Church. But we can expect something better than what we have right now.