Kirk Hanson is a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and former executive director. Views are his own.
Some have wondered why the recently released Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on priest sex abuse in six dioceses attracted so much attention. The pattern of priest abuse was already well known, of course. And of the 301 priests in the six dioceses cited in the report, only two were found to have abused in the last 10 years. So why did the report get so much attention – and what does it say about continuing demands for voluntary disclosure by other dioceses?
The report got worldwide attention, to be blunt, because the Church hierarchy is still perceived to be hiding the full story of clerical abuse. It matters little that almost all the cases were a decade or more in the past. The press and public believed that they were getting a truer story, compiled by a public body with subpoena power, for the first time.
What is at stake is basic trust in the bishops as well as the priests. American Catholics do not feel they have ever gotten a full accounting of abusive priests, nor a straight story regarding which bishops and other diocesan officials protected abusers and facilitated their continuing predation. The almost simultaneous revelation that Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was himself an abuser, a fact presumably known and tolerated by many in the Church hierarchy, discredited any argument that the Church long ago dealt with all instances of abuse. The result is a collapse of what remaining trust in American bishops, and even the Vatican, that there was. These recent incidents have brought the American Church to the brink of a historic collapse of church-going and identification of the “faithful” as Catholics.
The American Catholic bishops, with very few exceptions, have argued that greater transparency would only harm the reputation of the Church further and accomplish nothing. Some have even seized on the fact that the Pennsylvania report indicated there were only two new cases in the past decade as reason to stay silent. They argue that there is no legal obligation to disclose more than what is in the public record—arrests and convictions.
What the bishops miss is that they and the Church have emptied the reservoir of trust and each additional revelation about the past—McCarrick, the Nebraska cases revealed this weekend—are the last straw for increasing numbers of American Catholics. The random revelations from the past, which will inevitably continue, will insure the collapse of the American Church as measured by Sunday Mass attendance and self-identification as Catholics.
Some, including myself, have suggested that each and every diocese should publish a grand jury style report, prepared by independent outsiders, providing the same information revealed in Pennsylvania. This would include a listing of every single credible accusation of priest abuse over the past 60 years, how it was investigated, whether the accused was referred to the police, what punishments and restrictions on continuing ministry were applied, and what bishop or official made the decision.
Such disclosure would certainly do some short term damage to the Church’s reputation, but that would be balanced by considerable credit for the commitment to get the whole story out. And the long-term damage of NOT disclosing is much greater. Without this significant cleansing, random revelations will continue, and every priest and every bishop will continue to be under suspicion that perhaps he is an undisclosed abuser or enabler.
There is a significant long-term reward to full disclosure. If every accusation is on the record, as well as the record of how each bishop handled those accusations, then the faithful can start to put their trust in those priests NOT named and those bishops with a good record of handling abuse cases. Yes, some bishops, likely most retired, will have their records and memories blemished. But that is the cost of rebuilding trust in today’s faithful priests, in bishops with good records, and in the American Catholic Church.
The only way out, in my view, is this full cleansing. The path of disclosure is scary to a generation of bishops who are accustomed to being respected and whose word has rarely been openly questioned. However, today, this generation of American bishops is called on to save the Church from collapse—and the only way to do this is to embrace the rewards of radical openness and disclosure.