Dear Pope: It's Me Again
Dear Pope: It’s been a while since I wrote to you. Like many people around the world, I’ve been watching your tenure closely, particularly regarding the sexual abuse of children. I want to commend you for your move to establish a tribunal for holding bishops accountable for their actions to protect abusers and stonewall investigations or their inaction to protect children in response to sexual abuse by priests. I also commend you for actually listening to the Papal Commission you established in late 2013 to advise you on these matters.
It’s been a while since I wrote to you. Like many people around the world, I’ve been watching your tenure closely, particularly regarding the sexual abuse of children.
I want to commend you for your move to establish a tribunal for holding bishops accountable for their actions to protect abusers and stonewall investigations, or their inaction to protect children in response to sexual abuse by priests. I also commend you for actually listening to the Papal Commission you established in late 2013 to advise you on these matters. I am sure that many factors contributed to this decision on your part, not the least of which is the conviction of Bishop Robert Finn in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the recent indictment of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul for cover ups of child sexual abuse cases.
Previous popes have deferred to the “sovereignty” of bishops rather than using their papal authority to discipline bishops. The fact that bishops were not held accountable by the church has been a clear indicator that the Roman church as an institution was not serious about addressing the abuse of children.
You inherited responsibility for a church whose primary agenda was “institutional protection.” This tends to be the default position of many institutions. It means that at every administrative decision point, the person in charge seeks to “protect” the institution. This translates into efforts to hide the fact of priests abusing children, stifle the voices of survivors, avoid “scandal”, and avoid outside investigations. This strategy sort of worked for years, but the center could not hold; the voices of survivors grew too loud and too numerous to ignore. Civil courts began to provide remedies for survivors. A few priest abusers were convicted in criminal court. A few bishops stepped up and began to take action to address the abuse of children in their dioceses.
The institutional protection agenda held sway until it finally became apparent that it doesn’t work. The institutional church was not in fact being protected. Rather, this strategy was undermining the integrity of the church and has led to a profound loss of its moral authority, especially in matters of sexuality [see recent Irish vote in support of gay marriage.]
A faithful response to the disclosures of sexual abuse of children by priests—a response based on who we say we are as Christians—is the justice-making agenda. A justice-making agenda welcomes the disclosures by survivors of abuse, offers them acknowledgement and support, finds those responsible for harm done to them, removes them from any leadership roles, cooperates with criminal prosecutions, and holds diocesan structures accountable for insuring that these steps are taken. Because this is the right thing to do and it actually does protect the integrity of the church.
Establishing a tribunal to hold bishops accountable is a step forward. It suggests that maybe you are beginning to acknowledge the failure of the institutional protection agenda and are moving towards a Gospel response of justice within the church.
My prayer is that you are motivated by a real desire to see justice bring healing to individuals and churches. Even if you are also motivated by your administrative responsibilities for the institution of the church, I hope you now understand that the “institutional protection agenda” has not only failed to protect the institution and its most vulnerable members, it has in fact brought the church to the brink.
So here’s the test: will any bishops who operated out of fear and expediency, and at the expense of their people, be finally held accountable and removed from their offices? This is the test of whether the Roman church and you as its pope are capable of a justice-making agenda in response to the horrific history of sexual abuse of children in the church.
We live in hope and possibility. You, the Papal Commission, and the Tribunal remain in my prayers.
Your sister in Christ,