Catholic and Apostolic: The Complicated Reality Behind Oversight of Bishops


The last time the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church made headlines, it was a story of bad priests. John Geoghan, Paul Shanley, Ronald Paquin – priests who abused boys in the Boston Archdiocese – were the faces of the problem in 2002.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas that year and proposed rules for dealing with such cases. The Vatican approved them soon after. Perhaps the most important of these has been the creation of review boards, made up mostly of lay people, to determine whether the allegations are credible. If so, the case is referred to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for decision. Priests with credible allegations against them are dismissed. The CDF also demands that “[c]Civil law regarding the reporting of crimes to the proper authorities must always be followed.

Secular oversight of Catholic bishops is essential, both to guarantee honest bishops and to accuse bad ones.

These procedures have been largely effective. The Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate reports that nationwide, from 2015 to 2017, there were approximately seven allegations of abuse each year against Catholic clergy. (In contrast, 42 teachers in Pennsylvania alone lost their license for sexual misconduct in 2017.) My impression is that Catholics generally trust their pastors.

The problem today is that the people in the pews do not trust their bishops. There are three reasons for this. One is the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August. He criticized the bishops of six dioceses for mishandling hundreds of abuse cases.

The second is the case of Theodore McCarrick, former cardinal and archbishop of Washington. Last Saturday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that a Vatican court had found him guilty of abusing both minors and adults during his career as a priest and bishop. He even solicited sexual favors in the sacrament of confession. McCarrick was expelled from the clerical state. There are numerous rumors and a former Apostolic Nuncio has alleged that a number of senior church officials knew of McCarrick’s sins and failed to act.

The third reason for widespread distrust is that the rules adopted in 2002 do not apply to bishops, but only to priests and deacons. This caused even practicing Catholics to lose faith in their leaders. Upright bishops strive to expose and punish abuses in their dioceses and observe their own vows of celibacy. But how can the faithful know which bishops are honest?

This is why secular oversight is essential, as much to guarantee the honest bishops as to accuse the bad ones.

When the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore last November for their annual fall meeting, they planned to vote on new protocols to hold bishops accountable for sexual abuse, including the creation of a special lay commission to investigate sexual abuse. to examine the allegations against the bishops. But the Vatican has asked them to postpone action until after this week’s summit in Rome, where heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences meet to discuss sexual abuse.

People have accused the Vatican of not understanding the depth of anger and frustration felt by American Catholics. It turns out, however, that there is a problem with the transposition of the mechanisms of lay review of priests to the lay review of bishops.

The Dallas Rules require each bishop to establish a predominantly lay council in his diocese to review charges against priests. But no one would trust such a council to examine the bishop himself because, under canon law, the council cannot be independent of the bishop. He holds all legislative, executive and judicial authority in his diocese. Only the pope can overrule or dismiss him.

US law has its own version of this rule. Robert Mueller has been authorized to investigate Russian election interference by the US attorney general, who works for the president. On the other hand, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been attacked as unconstitutional because its director is essentially independent of the president.

Our Constitution insists on presidential control of surveillance agencies because of our commitment to popular sovereignty. The president is elected by the people. Episcopal control in the Catholic Church rests on a different principle: apostolic succession.

Our Constitution insists on presidential control of surveillance agencies because of our commitment to popular sovereignty. The president is elected by the people. If they find his performance unsatisfactory, they can exclude him. The Special Council and the CFPB must be subordinate to it because, as unelected officials, they have no other democratic legitimacy.

Episcopal control in the Catholic Church rests on a different principle: apostolic succession. Bishops were ordained in an unbroken line going back to the apostles. This chain of witnesses is what perpetuates and preserves the truth of the Gospels, which were first orally committed to the Church by the disciples of Jesus. Catholics also believe that the Holy Spirit watches over the church to keep it from error.

The Reformed Churches split from the Catholic Church in the 16th century, in part due to concerns about corruption in the hierarchy. They held that the Scriptures alone are the infallible rule of faith and that all believers are competent to interpret them. Their forms of governance are, unsurprisingly, more democratic.

The understandable impulse for secular control over capricious bishops could easily lead to another democratic reform in the Catholic Church, similar to that which it experienced 500 years ago. If the church wants to avoid it, it will have to find a way to give people in the pews a voice. The challenge is to design a process that respects the principle of apostolic succession while ensuring control over the successors of the apostles.


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