In the celebrated words of Kris Kristofferson, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." By that eloquent standard, few people are as free as the Catholic bishops of the United States, who come together this week in Baltimore for their annual meeting.
In the aftermath of the recent revelations of clergy sex abuse by the attorney general of Pennsylvania and in anticipation of similar disclosures by attorneys general across the country, the bishops find themselves liberated to speak the truth about the moral catastrophe that has overtaken them. A catastrophe, it must be noted, that is largely of their own making.
What they won’t do, however, is anything substantive about it. On Monday, as the meeting began, the Vatican directed the bishops to delay voting on key accountability measures. And, at the same time, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States made the point that reformation was up to the church, not outside investigators.
This is hardly shocking to anyone who’s followed the scandal. Indeed, it’s questionable whether the bishops really would have seized the opportunity to acknowledge the obvious even if their meeting hadn’t been reined in.
Long before the clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002 — a sordid stew of rampant pedophilia and hierarchical cover up — the American bishops were well practiced at circling the wagons and marshaling their resources to protect the reputation of the church. As far back as 1985, when the first stories broke about priestly sex abuse in Lafayette, La., the priority of the bishops was the protection of the institution instead of responding to the victims, having the predators prosecuted or addressing the systemic problems in the church that fostered the culture of secrecy, clerical privilege and sexual deviance.
The admirable press coverage of the Lafayette scandal by the independent Catholic newsweekly, The National Catholic Reporter, was a clarion call that went unheeded by the Catholic hierarchy. Thirty-three years have passed since the initial eruption in Louisiana. A feature film about the Boston scandals of 2002, “Spotlight,” won Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards. The former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, has been exposed as a pedophile who also preyed on Catholic seminarians and young priests. And from the Vatican downward through the chain of command, the best we can hope for is the establishment of another committee to look into the matter.
If the American bishops have anything left to lose in terms of credibility, moral authority or integrity, I would love to know what it is.
When I resigned from the active priesthood to marry in 1988, celibacy was only one of the reasons that factored into my decision. The steadfast refusal of church leadership to come to grips with the mounting crisis of clerical sexual abuse was by that point becoming ever more apparent. Additionally, the steadfast refusal of the Vatican to admit women to the priesthood or to consider the ordination of married men continued to put enormous pressure on ordinary parish priests who were doing everything possible to keep up with the pastoral demands being placed upon them. I knew that firsthand from my days as a priest pastor in inner city Cleveland.
Fifteen years after my departure from the active priesthood I was summoned back to priestly service by my large, extended Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia. By that time, I was a married man, the father of two young children and an employee of the Montgomery County Government working in Rockville. At first, my cousins wanted me to officiate at their weddings. Then came the request to conduct funerals for my uncles and aunts. Requests for other pastoral services continued to multiply. My situation is hardly unique.
Along with my fellow married priests in Maryland and in company with a growing community of Roman Catholic Women Priests, I find myself — in my mid-60s and a retired public servant — ever busier these days as the institutional Catholic Church works ever harder to drive people away. The deeply rooted yearning among many Catholics for worship and sacrament and community has never diminished; if anything, those powerful spiritual needs have intensified through this rolling crisis of clerical sex abuse that seems to have no end.
Whether or not we have reached an inflection point in the history of the Catholic Church remains to be seen. What is unmistakable, however, is the deepening sense of disillusionment and betrayal that has overtaken vast numbers of ordinary Catholics.
Stephen J. Stahley is a married Catholic priest who lives with his family in Maryland; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.