Imagine Yourself a Bishop

There are many different kinds of bishops. The basically good bishops lead morally upright lives, are faithful to the magisterium, and are dedicated to service.

There are numerous varieties of bad bishops: those sexually active with females or males; those who cover up for priests who engage in immoral behavior; those living luxurious lives and robbing the poor; those who teach against the Gospel because it is too demanding; those who care more about power than justice; those who sideline priests who report corrupt bishops or priests; and those who are too weak to do anything about the corruption of their fellow bishops and their priests. Worst of all, and more common than we think, are those who don’t believe in God or the Gospel—those who have infiltrated the Church to work against the Gospel while enjoying the “perks” (some of which are deplorably immoral) the episcopacy provides. It is truly painful to produce this list.

You probably notice I didn’t say there are holy bishops. They might exist, of course, but I am not seeing the kind of behavior from very many of our bishops currently that would point to holiness. Few (maybe just one?) of them are visibly doing anything that manifests that they put the care of souls ahead of all else, even things that don’t require heroic virtue.

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One common situation that inhibits holiness and even goodness in bishops, is that most if not all of them have inherited dioceses with a long history and culture of permissiveness for priestly misconduct, especially of the homosexual sort, and cover-up of the same. In some dioceses, if a bishop removed every priest leading a double life, preaching heresy, embezzling, and playing free and easy with the liturgy, it might result in a large number of priest-less parishes. Moreover, some of these priests were likely his past classmates, or are close friends. He doesn’t know what to do, so he doesn’t do anything—unless forced by the misconduct becoming public. When misconduct becomes public, he announces that he acted immediately upon the information he received (although he may have known of it for years).

Newly installed bishops often have no idea what they should or can do about the situations they inherit. Indeed, I have heard of bishops who have not even read the files they possess on their priests because they are afraid of what they might find. What they do find can be truly horrifying.

Let’s engage in an imaginative exercise, which, unfortunately, is not just imaginative. 

Try to imagine yourself as a bishop. You think of yourself as a basically good bishop and hope your elevation will enable you to advance the Gospel. 

But you know your particular diocese has been beset by terrible rumors—rumors about one of your predecessors having engaged in satanic, ritual sexual abuse.

You are skeptical about these rumors because they are so sensational and implausible, and reported largely by the “fringe” Catholic media—media that seems to have a sick appetite for smearing bishops whose “agendas” they don’t like. Still, after what we learned about McCarrick, and what was in the Pennsylvania report on sexual abuse by clergy, makes it clear that the unthinkable is not necessarily uncommon. 

You are grateful for the Dallas Charter. Why? It has taken responsibility for abuse of minors out of your hands—just turn everything over to the state and wipe your hands clean.

But reports of priests abusing their authority to sexually exploit adults proliferate, and no one will solve that problem for you. There really is a “lavender mafia” among diocesan priests and even bishops that is unforgiving to those who try to clean up the filth. 

Let’s say the filth you discovered in your new diocese makes McCarrick’s abuse seem like hand-slappable hi-jinks.  Reports of your predecessor being accused of satanic ritual sexual abuse, of being an active homosexual who abused seminarians, and one who misappropriated funds, have reemerged, and this time there is more than just rumors—there is real documentation. There are documents leaked from the files of the very diocese over which he presided as cardinal, and over which you now preside. In fact, you yourself have seen those documents. Furthermore, the female who claims she was the object of the satanic ritual sexual abuse as a girl is still alive and telling her story. Obfuscation is becoming more difficult. Although the media sources reporting this story have a reputation for “persecuting” bishops with whom they disagree (but who have been proven correct countless times), it is getting harder to simply brush the accusations aside.  How should you deal with laity—some of them wealthy and generous laity—who are asking you what you know about your predecessor? 

What do you do now? If you previously haven’t been spending a lot of time on your knees begging God to direct your every step, it seems now you would be putting dents in the prie-dieu in your beautifully appointed private chapel. You may call some fellow bishops for advice on ordering an independent investigation. Not to your surprise, they ardently urge you not to do so—they are very afraid of what other bishops might be implicated in horrendous deeds, for the accused bishop didn’t act alone. They are also afraid that there will be pressure on them to act upon the filth buried in their own files. 

Those capable of more clever rationalizations argue that public disclosure of such a monster in the episcopacy—whose monstrosity was known to other bishops and to Rome—would be a lethal blow to the Church. It would result in the hemorrhaging of membership and donations and vocations—think how many good services would be neglected! In fact, some of your brother bishops give you advice on how to destroy documents or evade penetrating questions from the laity and the media, and how to discredit or threaten those who are in possession of the incriminating documents. You are not altogether surprised at what they say because, to be honest, you know you would say the same to them were they in a similar fix.

The reason you asked for their advice was that you hoped it would eliminate the strong sense you had that it was time for the truth to come out. You have received some touching notes from devout laity who express great respect for you and believe you are a very good bishop who will do the right thing. They have been devastated by the reports of corruption in the Church, and believe that you either will be able to honestly and effectively refute reports of the criminal behavior of your predecessor, or you will courageously bring the darkness to light. You don’t quite know why they think that of you, for you know you have never done anything truly courageous. Yes, you have spoken out strongly against abortion on occasion, for instance, but you have not done anything about that issue or any other that required true courage. Still, you wish you were the man or bishop they, for some reason, think you are. 

Sadly, with possibly a few exceptions, we have no reason to be believe any bishop in the US, would—without pressure from the legal system—open his files and allow the truth to come out, whatever it is. Would the leadership of the USCCB step in to address the scandalous behavior that would be reported? Scandalous situations such as a rector of a national shrine who has been “outed” as a luxury-loving, predatory homosexual, or the presence of Dignity and LGBT-celebration masses in a diocese, or the hosting of celebrity priests who sophistically undermine Church teaching? Do we have bishops who, individually or as a group, would privately approach a bishop to urge him to do the right thing?

I am not sure there are any greater evils than a bishop who has engaged in satanic ritual sexual abuse. But there are lesser evils that basically good bishops can and must deal with now, even if in the past they have looked the other way. As I have observed before, bishops should routinely make an offer to the priests in their dioceses who are sexually active (with females or males), or who are habitually and unrepentantly viewing pornography, to provide a smooth exit from the priesthood by helping them gain marketable skills. Those who wish to reform themselves will be helped to do so—for instance, they will be assigned to live with a virtuous priest to whom they will be accountable. Any priest who does not come forward but who has credible accusations in his file, will be investigated, cleared, or invited to leave.

Yes, there will be an uproar; accusations of homophobia and a witch-hunt, parishioners who adamantly defend their miscreant pastor, a decline in attendance and contributions, and, most seriously, an increased shortage of priests able to be pastors. 

It is unlikely that any support from Rome will be forthcoming. 

But bishops do have power in their own dioceses. In the end, the Church will be purer and stronger and, most importantly, more faithful to Jesus. And that is what is needed for the salvation of souls. 

Please, basically good bishops, do the hard but right thing! There are those of us who are praying for you, who will support you, and who count on you to rebuild our Church. Please do the hard but right thing.

[Photo Credit: Catholic News Agency]


  • Janet E. Smith

    Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.

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