Just when it seems like the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church couldn’t get any worse, another horrific story emerged. Late last month, “60 Minutes” aired a story featuring two diocesan whistleblowers, including a priest who spoke out against his own bishop in a rare act of defiance.
The whistleblowers revealed that the Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo purposefully omitted the names of priests facing credible allegations of sexual abuse, and publicly claimed that one former priest had nothing in his background “which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children,” when he knew of facts to the contrary.
Unsurprisingly (and understandably), Malone has faced calls for his resignation. He has thus far rejected them, claiming at an August press conference that “the shepherd does not desert the flock at a difficult time.” His attitude echoes that of many of his peers, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops failed to take substantive action on the sex abuse scandal during their conference last week.
As with other bishops who have failed to heed resignation calls—including the bishop of my Pennsylvania hometown—this type of claim ignores that the clerics in question have already deserted the flock by concealing unspeakable acts for years and, in some cases, decades. Resignation would merely recognize how the bishops rendered themselves unable to lead and provide a form of restitution and penance to the victims who have suffered so much from their conduct.
Unfortunately, however, too many bishops seem preoccupied with saving their skins rather than making amends for their own bad acts. In that case the laity may have little choice but to take the matter into their own hands and exercise their sole form of power and control over the hierarchy of the Catholic Church: by hitting it in the wallet.
I recognize the fraught nature of any attempt to boycott dioceses, whether over the clerical abuse scandal or anything else. As with the controversies over Catholic and pro-abortion lawmakers—whether those individuals should seek Holy Communion, and whether priests should refuse to distribute it to them—boycotts could become politicized and trivialized.
But few who have read about the sex abuse scandal, whether in the Pennsylvania grand jury report released this summer or the all-too-similar reports and stories like it, can deny the perverted yet pervasive attitude throughout the church that led to such horrific acts. Based on their actions, far too many of its “leaders” believe that the Catholic Church exists primarily, if not solely, through institutions rather than through people—the faithful who sit in the pews every Sunday.
Financial boycotts might, by using one language bishops themselves recognize, finally rebalance that relationship. After all, if Timothy Dolan—portrayed as the antidote to the church’s crisis of confidence—could shelter $57 million in church assets from clerical abuse claims while archbishop of Milwaukee, it speaks to the way dollars drive decisions among bishops.
Perhaps then bishops might rediscover the important distinction between faith—belief in a higher power—and organized religion. Fallible man controlling the latter makes it subject to the vicissitudes and foibles of human nature, whereas the former remains immutable, and focused solely on the relationship between one man and his God.
I recognize that financial boycotts of parishes or dioceses would have collateral effects, undermining the work of good priests. But nothing compares to the damage that bad priests, and their bishop-enablers, have wrought through the sexual abuse scandal—both on their direct victims, and on the church as a whole. Financial bankruptcy for church institutions would almost seem a fitting bookend, when some of those same institutions became so morally bankrupt that they concealed these heinous crimes, and the priests who committed them.
As to the many charitable endeavors that the Catholic Church supports, individuals can find other ways to fund these good causes without giving money to parishes and dioceses. Catholic Charities accepts donations directly, for instance, as do many other relief organizations, ranging from the Knights of Columbus to So Others Might Eat, an ecumenical soup kitchen in Washington where I volunteer.
Not Too Big to Fail
The arrogance of bishops who remain in office offends conservative principles. They are, in essence, claiming they are “too big to fail”—that only they can clean up after the scandals they in many cases created.
My mother taught me the most powerful retort to that claim. A devout Catholic herself, she often reminded me as a child that the only human who could never be replaced was crucified.
The bishops responsible for covering up clerical abuses should remember those words—the faith they claim to profess—and act accordingly. If they don’t, the faithful should themselves act accordingly to remind them.