To the US Bishops: A (Friendly) Call to Repentance and Reform

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If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin
and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Not only the US bishops but a significant portion of lay Catholics are discussing and pondering – almost obsessively — what can be done to address the sexual abuse crisis. A vast array of “solutions” has been proposed for dealing with who knew what, when, and who did what in respect to Archbishop McCarrick and how accusations of abuse of minors against bishops should be handled. Most involve requests for investigations, new policies or codes.

A problem that is not sufficiently on the bishops’ radar screen (at least publicly) is that of priestly sexual misconduct in seminaries, dioceses, and religious orders, and the presence of gay networks throughout the Church. No More Victims, a group I work with, has published online and sent to all bishops “What We, the Laity, are Reading that has Shaken Us to the Core”, a reader of excerpts from articles published in just the last few months that are exposing the extent of priestly sexual misconduct. Or perhaps I should say “re-expose” since there were many books written to expose those scandals decades ago. Had those exposés been heeded, we would not be assailed with the problems that are devastating the Church and threatening to destroy it today (though it shall prevail against the gates of hell!).

The only ones who can take action that will truly reform the Church and restore trust to the episcopacy are the bishops. Most of them likely are not in any immediate way responsible for the presence and corrosive influence of unchaste priests. They have inherited dioceses with priest populations of which between 5% and 60% are sexually active with males or have been so in the past; they have inherited a culture in which it is more important to protect the institutional Church than to put a premium on the morality of their priests or even the protection of others. They understandably fear losing many priests were they to address the problem, for they would have an even harder time making sure the sacraments are readily available than they do now. Moreover, many of the laity would prefer to have corrupt priests than to make the sacrifice of attending Mass in an unfamiliar parish or one at a distance.

This proposal is directed to bishops.

The problem is so wide and deep and the diocesan culture so ill equipped to handle the problem that reform requires unprecedented and radical measures. While it is foolish to be truly optimistic, I believe the measures laid out below could work. It requires, though, that the bishops be humble and courageous in ways that have been expected of few people ever.

What I am proposing is that bishops admit to the mistakes they have made — indeed, the sins they have committed — in the governance of the Church in respect to priestly sexual misconduct. (I apologize for the boldness and even presumptuousness in making this proposal but we laity love our Church and our bishops, so in these desperate times we must be willing to take unusual steps.)

It may be some small comfort that likely there are very few bishops who have not been complicit in some way in respect to the sexual abuse crisis; thus bishops can take strength from the fact that large numbers of them should be subjecting themselves to this penitential exercise. I do not propose that bishops resign unless they themselves are engaged in sexual misconduct and unwilling to reform. I do not propose that those who have failed in their duties resign, unless their failure is of such a magnitude that trust cannot possibly be restored.

It is my hope that bishops will do an honest accounting of their behavior, ask pardon of God and forgiveness from those whom they have offended, do appropriate penance and resolve to change course (suggestions for suitable changes, below).

Examination of Conscience

Among the questions the bishops should ask themselves before the Lord, in a sincere examination of conscience, are these.

Have I

 failed to act upon a serious charge against a priest because there were only rumors and “no evidence,” and failed to make reasonable attempts to verify or refute the charge?

 failed to act upon a serious charge against a priest because a man’s “private life is his private life” and “we are all sinners”?

 failed to act upon a serious charge against a priest because of fear that I may lose a priest?

 failed to act upon a serious charge against male or female religious in my diocese?

 failed to report to the public subsequent credible accusations against already credibly accused perpetrators?

 given misleading or imprecise reasons for having removed a priest from a parish for a temporary period, for having transferred a priest, or for having removed a priest from active ministry?

 recommended for advancement to the episcopacy someone I knew to have a history of sexual misconduct or who was currently engaging in sexual misconduct, with no evidence that he had sincerely repented and reformed? Have I failed to oppose the advancement of such a priest?

 failed to give a truly sympathetic hearing to a victim and to act as a loving father to the victim?

 failed to offer pastoral and/or psychological counseling to a victim?

 failed to meet with the parish or community affected by the abuse and to act like a father to them? Have I required subordinates to do so in order to protect my own reputation and distance myself from the problem?

 failed to offer pastoral counseling to a priest falsely or truly accused and to act as a father to him?

 failed to meet personally with the perpetrator and call him to account for his actions?

 attempted to remain uninformed about or aloof from accusations of sexual misconduct and related issues, and delegated them to staff?

 failed to confront a fellow bishop about his own sexual misconduct or his poor handling of sexual misconduct matters?

 failed to urge other bishops to speak with a fellow bishop about his sexual misconduct or his poor handling of sexual misconduct matters?

 failed to acknowledge the presence of a network or the undue influence of priests who have sex with males in my diocese, in seminaries, and in the Church at large, either in the past or presently?

 failed to ensure that the seminaries to which I send my seminarians are free from a subculture of priest faculty or other seminarians who have sex with males?

 sent for psychological counseling or engaged in a smear campaign of a victim who reported abuse?

 failed to support my seminarians who have been ill-treated by seminaries when they reported abuse?

 failed to keep accurate records of abuse, or worked to hide abuse from legal authorities?

 failed to report activities that may violate civil laws?

 ignored my conscience or failed to form my conscience?

Making a public accounting of these failures would be an excellent way to clear the board.

Practical Purifying Action

But then, action corresponding to those admissions must be undertaken, action that would purify the presbyterate.

Bishops should make it known to their priests that those who are living unchaste lives by engaging in sexual relations with either males or females, and/or who are viewing pornography, and who are not willing to reform, should leave active ministry and request laicization.  Bishops should offer to help such men find employment in the secular world and to provide funding at a reasonable level to help them during the transition period gain the education or training needed.

Bishops should offer to those living unchaste lives but who want to repent and reform, help in doing so, whether that involves counseling, effective modes of accountability, a lengthy retreat, or training in acquiring the virtue of chastity.

Bishops should invite their priests to approach them voluntarily to pursue either of the above paths. In every way the bishops should deal with their priests as a father would.

Bishops should review all priests’ files. If there are priests charged with sexual misconduct but who have not admitted to such, the bishops should have the priests’ church-owned computers and phones seized and searched as a way of verifying charges made. Bishops should ask trusted lay organizations to recommend responsible lay leaders who would assist the bishop in reviewing their priest’s files and help with difficult decisions. Laity assistance would help restore the confidence in the bishops. Bishops should set up lay boards to assist them in this fashion for the future.

Common sense measures should also be taken to ensure that seminaries are safe places for their seminarians and that they are formed in the virtue of chastity.

Promoting a Year of Chastity

“What We Laity are Reading that has Shaken Us to the Core” recommends “A Year of Promoting Chastity” as a way of changing the culture of the diocesan priesthood:

We recommend that bishops initiate a year dedicated to recommitting their presbyterate to chaste celibacy in order to help their priests achieve intimacy with Jesus and be the priests Jesus wants them to be.
One such program could be based upon the recommendations in the book In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart — The Journal of a Priest at Prayer (the bishop might want to give a copy of this book to all his priests).

This book is a record of private locutions to a Benedictine priest by Jesus and the Blessed Mother who implore the author and other priests to do reparation for impure priests. Here is a typical passage:

I am about to renew the priesthood of My Church in holiness. I am very close to cleansing My priests of the impurities that defile them. Soon, very soon, I will pour out graces of spiritual healing upon all My priests. I will separate those who will accept the gift of My divine friendship from those who will harden their hearts against me. To the first I will give a radiant holiness like that of John and of My apostles in the beginning. From the others I will take away even what they think they have. It must be so. I want the priests of My Church clean in heart and faithful in responding to the immense love with which I have loved each one of them and chosen each one for Myself and for the realization of the designs of My Heart. Those who do not live in My friendship betray Me and impede My work. They detract from the beauty of holiness that I would see shine in my Church. I weep over the hardness of heart, and My Immaculate Mother, their sorrowing Mother weeps with Me over them. (p. 49)

Here is the plan proposed in In Sinu Jesu (p. 78):

1. All priests meet on Thursday evening (in the Cathedral with the bishop if possible, or at several churches in accessible locations with the bishop rotating between them).
2. They pray vespers together.
3. They have time for confessions.
4. They have mass and an hour of adoration with some passages read from In Sinu Jesu.
5. They share a simple meal together.

Bishops should also consider modifying their living arrangements and life-styles and to ask their priests to do the same in order to model more truly the way of the Lord Jesus.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.[b]

(Psalm 24:3-6 ESV)

Laity: Please send a copy of this by email or snail mail to your bishop

and also a copy of or a link to the document: 

 “What We, the Laity, are Reading

that has Shaken Us to the Core

 

Printable PDF of “To the US Bishops”

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Prof Janet E. Smith teaches moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.  She has a webpage at www.janetesmith.org.

14 Comments

  1. Mary Pat Van Epps on

    Thank you, Janet Smith, for caring so much and for doing such a marvelous job with this. Your suggestions are perfect and we can pray at least some of the bishops will heed them. God bless you for all you do!

  2. It appears the Homosexual movement is bent on either changing the Church or destroying it.
    The Holy Spirit will keep it from destruction but we through our engagement will determine how much will be left.

  3. Dr. Smith, you gave a talk that was shown on EWTN about 20 years ago, and it was so superb I still remember being captivated by the information you presented. You are a gift to us, the laity, thank you for all you do.

    I am annoyed to realize Catholics would prefer to have a corrupt priest rather than travel to a Mass with a true priest. What kind of faith do we have that this would be the case. Terrible. My husband and I believe the church will have to undergo great suffering before it has a chance to come back as Catholicism. Faithful Catholics are so disgusted by what we have seen we are not financially supporting as we once were. We give gift cards to faithful priests but refuse to support this apostate church. As terrible as it is to consider, we wonder if our beautiful churches and cathedrals will be sold off before these men realize their day is over and they either return to Catholicism or find jobs in the private sector if they have any skills.

    Many of these bishops are active homosexuals, and obviously at least some Cardinals are. All one has to do is look at the circle that surrounds this pope. He has placed them there, draw your own conclusions.

    • It’s not always that Catholics prefer to have a corrupt priest rather than travel to a Mass with a faithful priest. Staying to teach the TRUTH where the truth isn’t 100% helps more Catholics from being sheeple blindly led by a wolf. I’ve been there with a wolf type priest. I stayed as long as the Holy Spirit wanted me there.

  4. Dear Dr. Smith —

    Might it also be appropriate to include in the examination of conscience a question —

    Have I —

    failed to confront pastors at parishes within my diocese that openly embrace and thus promote homosexuality?

    In New York City — there are three parishes (St Paul the Apostle, St Francis of Assisi, St. Francis Xavier) that are well-known for their LGBT groups that are celebrated and that offer lecture series to help the rest of us learn what we can from ‘gay love’. I have witnessed pastors and priests at these parishes spoke/speak openly during homilies about their support for ‘gay marriage’ — and these parishes even hold special “Pride” masses on the day of the gay Pride parade. One can easily go to their parish bulletins to confirm all this.

  5. Dr. Janet, In other words, the biblical models of reform begun by JPII in seminaries need now, authentically/organically connect to the life of the presbyterate. The relation that JPII envisioned the rector having with seminarians (as Christ moving and walking with the Twelve in true filial relation) are now to correspond with Bishops and Priests.

    It seems this is the basic reform that needs to happen and for some reason hasn’t; we need the equivalent of a Pastores Dabo Vobis for the diocesan presbyterate. We need the exact same reforms in seminaries to be carried forward into the life and governance of a presbyterate. For some reason, there is an absolute rupture in formation after a man is ordained; and because this continues to be so in every presbyterate, the same problems that will echo into every generation of priests.

    We need authentic external formation/structures of correction along with authentic interior formation/direction in every diocese.

    We need authentic friendship in the moral life. Our Lord created friendship with the Twelve, and sent them out in pairs. Within the ethos of presbyterates this does not exist. Bishops treat priests as mercenary soldiers that plug assignments.

  6. You assume bishops have simply exercised poor judgment, when many of them are gay too, sexually active with men, and child abusers. Questions I would add:

    1) Am I gay?
    2) Am I sexually active with men, women or children?
    3) Do I support homosexual behavior and unions?
    4) Do I believe celibacy only means not getting married, but does not preclude sexual activity (this is very common among clergy)?
    5) Am I willing to publicly confess any of the above I answered “yes” to, and resign for the good of the Church?

    If they anwer yes to any of 1-4, but no to 5, they should be removed and defrocked, period. Same goes for the Pope and the Cardinals.

    If they answer no to 1-4, follow up with these questions:
    1) Am I willing to publicly name and denounce the practices of the pontifical secret and mental reservation for what they are, the concealment of crimes and protection of criminals, and sanction of lying?
    2) Am I willing to stop obeying the pontifical secret and stop using mental reservation, and start telling the truth instead, especially to the lay faithful?

    If they answer no, they should be removed and defrocked for the good of the Church. And one more question:

    1) Am i willing to institute and require complete financial transparency at diocesan, parish, Catholic school and Catholic Charities levels, so lay people know exactly where money in the Church comes from and how it is spent, including federal dollars?

    If they answer no, they should be removed and defrocked for the good of the Church. Everyone is focused on sex abuse right now, but financial malfeasance is huge and widespread too, and also needs to be exposed.

    • Theo, You are undoubtedly right that there are a lot more questions that could and should be put to the bishops, and the ones you identify are good ones. There could also be questions about what he has done in his parish to teach the Church’s teaching on all matters.

      I do not believe, however, that a bishop, or any one else, needs to identify his sexual proclivities to the public. Some select individuals may have the right to know that information but not everyone.

      I am not assuming the bishops have just exercised poor judgment. I do think a problematic percentage of them are actively having sex with males. But I don’t think this examination of conscience is likely to be undertaken by them. We need good bishops to become better, to gain strength and credibility by cleaning up their own dioceses and then to work on dealing with their unfaithful fellow bishops.

  7. Dear Dr. Janet Smith,

    While I applaud this article and the call to holiness as truly inspired and full of hope, I wander if somehow this is still a stop-gap measure that does not address the core issue:
    1. Majority of Catholics use contraceptives
    2. They have one child or two children on average.
    3. True vocations to the priesthood come from large families.
    4. Contraceptives choke the call to the priesthood.
    5. Bishops have numerous parish they need to manage
    6. Lacking true vocations, they turn to men with homosexual tendency

    This vicious cycle is entrenched in our society and I frankly can’t see the end of it. Therefore, whatever we do now will be only a band-aid until such time where we move away from the contraceptive mentality or the Lord washes away this culture with the four horses of the Apocalypse: plague, natural disaster, economic mayhem and war.

    • Egan, I do hope you are familiar with my work on contraception. I have been defending the Church’s teaching for nearly thirty years. My signature talk “Cracking the Contraceptive Myths” is available at: https://www.lighthousecatholicmedia.org/store/title/contraception-cracking-the-myths. So I couldn’t be more in agreement with you. Many things, short term and long term need to be done to purify the Church, But Catholics are not likely to follow the Church’s teaching on contraception unless they hear it preached and taught and that won’t happen until they get faithful bishops. We will have to do with even a greater priest shortage if all of those persistently violating their vows leave. but eventually good men will emerge.

  8. Equating pedophilia to homosexuality is absolutely ignorant. Maybe, it’s time to hold the leaders of the church accountable for their actions of deceit by aiding and abetting in a felony sex crime.

    • Ignoring the homosexual aspect to the illicit activities is, well, ignorant as well, Zak.

      Causative? Maybe not. Correlative? Sure seems like it.

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