Last week, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Texas did something rather unprecedented. They made public a list of clergy credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
The list spans eight decades, covers 15 dioceses and contains nearly 300 names. Some of the clerics identified have been defrocked; others have served jail time (although many have not, as the term “credibly accused” suggests a lower standard than that employed by law enforcement); far more are deceased. The details offered about the accused are often scant — just their names, those of the parishes they served and their dates of service are included.
For some Catholics and abuse survivors, the release was a tremendous letdown. Paul Petersen, a spokesman in Dallas for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the total number of names released “crazy low.”
At the very least, the release suggests a tangible effort is underway to improve transparency, part of what will be a concerted, long-term effort to regain the trust of the faithful.
That relationship, deservedly, has been tenuous for years. The Catholic Church never really recovered from the child sex abuse scandal of the early 2000s. Then last year, a series of revelations about the sexual activities of Washington, D.C.’s former bishop, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, proved what many had long thought — that the rot within the Church had permeated its hierarchy. Sexual predators had been not just protected but promoted, wittingly and repeatedly.
The grand jury report by the attorney general of Pennsylvania, describing hundreds of abuse cases (many already known) in disturbing detail, took down another popular Washington, D.C. cardinal, and was the catalyst for at least a dozen other states to open their own investigations into the Church.
At the time, I was one of many angry and dismayed Catholics who called upon state leaders — or at least local authorities — to do the same.
I still believe investigations by secular authorities are prudent, maybe even necessary. Reform is messy, and as the Church leadership’s insipid initial response to the McCarrick scandal revealed, despite its best efforts the Church may not have the moxie to manage the kind of course correction it requires.
But the Texas Bishops’ release of names does demonstrate what I am ready to accept as a newfound seriousness in tackling the Church’s demons.
Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson would probably quibble with the term “newfound,” since his diocese, to its credit, has been publishing a list of credibly accused clergy since 2007. Right now that list contains 17 names, its latest addition posted in October 2018.
And for Olson, the processes and protocols intended to protect children that were put in place in the early 2000s, already have changed the culture among the clergy and seminarians and within the diocese.
“When anyone reports anything to me — grooming, harassment, stalking, assault — I act on it immediately,” Olson assured me.
Given his reputation for swift justice, I tend to believe him.
The Church’s struggle with sex abuse, Olson explained, isn’t isolated but ubiquitous and societal.
Indeed, child abuse is pandemic in schools and other organizations, and the sexual exploitation of people at any age seems to animate the modern news cycle.
That does not excuse Church leadership, who are, after all, entrusted with the salvation of souls.
“We have to be at the forefront of this battle, forming consciences and protecting people,” said Olson.
Indeed, that’s a task made all the more challenging by the Church’s collective failures to live out its high moral standards on sexuality.
I remain skeptical of the Church’s ability to reform itself, especially given the societal forces pushing against it.
But I also understand that true transformation will take time, commitment, prayer and a million little steps that re-establish trust — perhaps beginning with the Texas Bishops’ recent, meaningful action.