The Catholic church is in crisis, and its leaders are making it worse

If any truth emerged from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting this week in Baltimore, it was surely Archbishop William E. Lori’s observation that the priest sex abuse scandal “ is going to be with us for a long, long time.” The church covered up the widespread abuse of children and adults by priests for a long, long time. It denied and deflected public outrage for a long, long time. And now, when a Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed the breadth of the abuse, and the fall of former Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick demonstrated that it extended to the top rungs of the Catholic hierarchy, the church is waiting longer to take even the most obvious of steps to restore its parishioners’ faith.

The crisis now facing the Catholic church is born not just of the abuse by priests but also of the willingness of the church’s leaders to step in to protect the clergy at the expense of the abused. Pope Francis’ call at the beginning of this meeting for the American bishops to delay any action until after a Vatican synod on the matter this winter thus looks not like a sign that the church is finally ready to address the matter at the highest level but that its old habits of deferring to clerical rather than civil or moral authority and papering over abuse remain intact. The church once moved abusive priests from parish to parish, now it is shuffling the fallout from meeting to meeting.

The bishops go back to their dioceses for a reckoning. They have faced pointed questions if not outright defections from the pews since the Pennsylvania and McCarrick scandals broke, and now they must own up to their impotence in addressing them. Before the meeting began, Archbishop Lori published an op-ed in The Sun in which he concluded that one of the factors that worsened the crisis was a “deep-seated culture of clericalism, which fostered unhealthy notions of entitlement and exclusivity, as well as the distorted view that the priestly state puts those who abused minors, as well as those who protected them, beyond reach of civil law and authority.” Yet when the opportunity came to demonstrate a break from that past, the bishops again folded in the face of clerical authority. They could not even muster a vote to encourage the Vatican to release documents related to the investigation of Mr. McCarrick.

We’re not certain that the measures up for discussion in the meeting would have done nearly enough to address the growing disillusionment — and in some cases, disgust — with the church. But creating a national third-party reporting system for confidential reporting of alleged abuse or mishandling of abuse allegations by bishops, a code of conduct for bishops and a uniform standard for dioceses to report credible accusations of abuse by priests — all discussed, none acted upon — would have at least shown some willingness of the group to take the matter seriously. That Mr. Lori and other like-minded bishops could not even convince the group to adopt an informal resolution on the matter will now cripple the bishops’ ability to credibly address Catholics’ concerns.

Each must now do what he can individually. For Mr. Lori, a good start would be releasing the diocese’s files on Archbishop Keough High School’s A. Joseph Maskell, the subject of the Netflix documentary “The Keepers.” Even if it doesn’t satisfy everyone, even if it doesn’t answer all questions, it would serve as a sign that the archbishop recognizes that the deepening crisis demands a new level of transparency. Other bishops can and must immediately release the names of any priests credibly accused of abuse. Baltimore’s archdiocese has been doing that since 2002; that others still do not is mind boggling.

The bishops’ failure to act this week now places the priest sex abuse scandal squarely in Pope Francis’ lap. By “insisting” that the American bishops hold off on any action until after a previously scheduled meeting in Rome in February, he has taken full ownership of the matter. It will now determine his legacy.

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