Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Vatican muffs bishops’ abuse crisis plan

Walk into any Catholic church in America and you’ll find the same two flags somewhere in the sanctuary, usually on the altar.

One is instantly recognizable to Americans regardless of religious affiliation: it’s red, white and blue and features stars and stripes. The other is gold and white and decorated by a pair of crossed keys and a tiara.

Once again this week, church leaders seem more interested in protecting the latter, the Vatican national flag, than they are the citizens of the former. With the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops poised to adopt measures meant to increase accountability for their handling of sexual abuse cases, the Vatican ordered them to stand down until Pope Francis can convene a global summit on the crisis next year.

The crisis management attempts come at truly the 11th hour. In the last month, dioceses across the country have released lists of the priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor, building up to this week’s conference.

Our own diocese posted a document to its website Thursday, listing 16 priests, none of them currently active, some of them defrocked or “laicized,” and many of them deceased, including one who unfortunately shares the same name as an active and much-beloved priest here in Savannah.

Even this attempt at transparency was poorly executed: The diocese declined to issue a news release to the public or the media about the list, and this news outlet initially learned of it via a reader who discovered the document on the diocesan website. Attempts to reach the Savannah bishop, Gregory J. Hartmayer, were unsuccessful as he was at the bishop’s conference and not available for comment. No cellphone and no breaks, evidently.

This post-it-and-ignore-it strategy was in keeping with how diocese leaders across the country handled the
situation, according to a Diocese of Savannah official.

Poor PR sense

As clueless as the American church leaders appear, the Vatican is clearly more inept when it comes to public relations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets on a regular basis, and the agenda is about as secret as the order of mass each Sunday.

To wait until the eve of the meeting’s start to instruct the bishops to delay voting is dumbfounding, especially with a number of abuse survivors and reform advocates on site and eager for the bishops to take action.

What’s more, the proposed initiatives aren’t exactly Vatican Council worthy. The recommendations are practical and long overdue steps to addressing the lack of accountability by bishops. Many Catholics find the scandal coverups, from Boston in 2002 to Pennsylvania this August, almost as despicable as the crimes, particularly when bishops respond to abuse by simply moving abuser priests to other geographic locales, where they are free to abuse again.

The U.S. bishops were set to answer parishioners’ calls for change by creating a hotline for reporting bishops alleged to be abusers or to have covered up abuse, a review board made up of laypeople — parishioners — to hear allegations, a procedure to remove bishops determined to be abusers themselves, and a bishops’ code of conduct.

“I hope this doesn’t look like a dodge,” a bishop based in Vermont, Christopher J. Coyne, told the New York Times.

Lessons from history

If not a dodge, the postponement certainly appears to be an attempt to let reform demands cool, particularly in the context of similar attempts in the past.

American bishops moved to adopt their own measures following the Boston scandal, examining ideas such as a zero tolerance policy for priests as well as establishing a layperson review board. The Vatican ordered a delay on those efforts, too, and ultimately squashed them.

Time will tell if American Catholics are in a repeat. The pope has called the global summit for February, and the leaders of the U.S. bishops conference will attend. The full U.S. bishops conference is scheduled to meet in March and could adopt recommendations from the global summit then.

Anything less than the proposals tabled by the bishops this week would be disappointing. The Vatican has been negligent in its failure to look out for parishioners for far too long.


Anonymous said...

As clueless as the present US bishops, is the best synopsis.
Church history teaches that a brighter future with better even dare I say saner bishops is not only possible but likely.
Let us face the truth, it would be impossible for future bishops to make a bigger "mess" than that made by US Catholic bishops in recent times.
We have to think in centuries ; twenty centuries...a hundred years or two hundred years from now our era, a mere several decades, will be most likely in the "dustbin" it to a large degree

Alan P.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

I was in a tit for tat with the diocese yesterday as there was no heads up to the priests that this was on our website. The way I found it on Thursday is from Bishop’s Accountabity which found it and posted the link to our website. The first person on the list is my now deceased childhood pastor in Augusta from the time I was in First grade until first year of college! To say I was shocked is an understatement and to link him with our one imprisoned serial rapists is unjust and outrageous. Unless he was a serial rapists of young people, but no info on that!

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

In addition yesterday,s paper included the name Joseph Smith without any attribution. That is the name of my predecessor. But the Joseph Smith on our list was a religious priest who died in 1952! So this weekend I need to tell the parish the name in the paper isn’t our former pastor! The newspaper has a front page correction and the editorial alludes to it!

Anonymous said...

Jack here...

The editorial piece pretty much voices my thoughts on this dismal subject. Thanks for posting it.

Father, I’m sorry about your consternation about your former priest. It matches many such reactions around the country, and many more still to come. I grew up in can only imagine the horror there.

God bless

CFr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

We priests were informed at the last Deanery meeting (23 October) that Bishop Hartmayer would soon be releasing a list of the names of all credibly accused priests from our diocese. That is reflected in the minutes of the meeting.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Yes, no one is disputing that, however, we were not told at the deanery meeting who would be on the list and no one, unless they go to the diocesan website regularly, like this past Thursday, would have known that it was posted (as the newspaper editorial states). The courtesy to our diocesan priests would have been for the Communication office to send us an email to alert us to it which they did belatedly yesterday after I complained.

rcg said...

So how did the newspaper get the heads up on it and no on else in the deanery did? They must have been given some notice? Was the list posted in compliance with an order from a state or federal office?

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Someone on the outside alerted them of it (but not I!) The diocese did this on their own as a matter of transparency. The only diocesan surprise I think was Quinlan plus the religious order ones. I think, too, where they served would have helped as well as how many accusations/nature of these. If you are going to accuse the dead, you might as well go all the way.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

The Diocese of Savannah chose to release the names publicly as many other dioceses have done.

In the times when most of the abuses are alleged to have happened the facts in the cases would not have been released to anyone. That's why we knew nothing of Quinlan and the others. Maybe there were non-disclosure agreements, maybe not. we just don't know.

We don't know, and, in my opinion, don't need to know the particulars. That is standard procedure even today in any organization dealing with personnel matters. If a lawsuit is brought, then the details will be public record.