A quote attributed to New York Yankees legendary catcher Yogi Berra captures the mood many Catholics may be feeling after the July 27 resignation of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals: It’s déjà vu all over again.
The retired archbishop from Washington, D.C., resigned following several claims of sexual abuse against him, including from one man who said he was abused as a child.
The case brings to mind a sexual abuse scandal involving clergy from the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002 that led to revelations of other cases around the country. It also led to lawsuits, bankruptcies, the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, shattered faith and lost trust. For those who worked in the church in the early 2000s, it was a dark and painful time.
As an editor at the Milwaukee Catholic Herald in 2002, I witnessed and reported on the scandal as it unfolded. A revered Milwaukee prelate, whose brief affair with another man became public, submitted his early resignation, priests with credible allegations were removed from ministry, and an organization founded in 1988 to support survivors of clergy sexual abuse victims, SNAP, challenged church leaders to be transparent in reporting cases of abuse, past and present.
What came out of the 2002 abuse scandal was the Dallas Charter, a comprehensive set of procedures created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to address allegations of sexual abuse of minors. It also launched important standards for church employees such as Virtus training, to help prevent and detect signs of abuse, and background checks.
Even with positive outcomes set into place, the latest revelations call into question the accountability of bishops. Archbishop McCarrick isn’t the first prelate to be caught up in allegations of sexual abuse or coverups since the Dallas Charter.
Cardinal George Pell of Melbourne, Australia, was ordered in May to stand trial on charges of sexual abuse of minors. A month later, Pope Francis accepted the resignations of five bishops from Chile following an investigation into covering up numerous incidents of sexual abuse by priests. Also last June, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia, was convicted of covering up allegations of sexual abuse.
Stories of abuse and betrayal hit all of us hard. We as a church have a right to expect our bishops to live out their vows with integrity and to hold their brother bishops accountable, just as they would any other church employee.
In his column, Bishop David Ricken addresses sexual abuse in the church and makes the point that church leaders must do a better job. “These are sad times for the church,” he says, “and remind us of the church’s ongoing need for conversion, especially among those who are given positions of authority.”
Yes, church leaders beginning with Pope Francis must take action to prevent not only abuse from happening, but holding accountable bishops who prevent abusers from facing consequences for their actions.
As people of faith, we find these cases — to put it mildly — difficult to understand. But faith in Jesus Christ and his church tells us that our struggles can be overcome through prayer, penance and action. We need to feed our spirituality and ask God to give us (leaders and people in the pews) strength.