One of the many refreshing attributes of Pope Francis is “he tells it like it is,” even when he states the obvious. To a lay person it is astounding to hear a Pope who speaks clearly, non-judgmentally, with compassion, intelligence and common sense.
It reminds one of a saying uttered by another plain-speaking leader from an earlier era: President Harry Truman. While running against the “do-nothing’ Congress in 1948 he responded to the charge that he was giving them hell by saying “I just say the truth and they think it's hell.”
In late September Pope Francis met for the first time with members of an advisory commission he named in 2014 to look into the Church’s less than sterling response to the matter of priestly sexual abuse. In the course of the meeting with this panel of outside experts he acknowledged the Church’s initial response was late and the initial response of just moving pedophile priests from one parish to another was morally and legally wrong.
Some bishops responded quickly, recognizing the gravity of the issue, indeed the criminality of it, and instinctively knew that transparency was critical to maintaining confidence within the laity for the Church hierarhy. Others thought first that they had to protect the image of the Church and its leadership and tried to dodge the gravity by moving offending priests around and minimizing any adverse publicity.
For differing responses one need look no further than the Spokane diocese, where Bishop William Skylstad responded quickly and adroitly. This response contrasted greatly with Boise Bishop Michael Driscoll, who, while Vicar General to the Bishop of the Orange County California diocese, had knowingly moved several pedophile priests around to different parishes.
In Driscoll’s defense he subsequently acknowledged his error and apologized.
Skylstad’s response was comprehensive and should have been the model for all bishops.
He formed a panel to review all cases, whether new or old; he authorized immediate reporting to civil authorities; any priest against whom a charge was levied, if still alive, was suspended while charges were investigated. He ordered more comprehensive background checks for any new diocesan employees and all teachers in the parochial schools. He formed a special communications committee to advise how to best and most quickly respond; he met with victims and apologized to them; he was one of the few bishops in the nation to meet with all the nuns in his diocese and he heard an earful.
He was one of the leaders in the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in shaping the new protocals dictating a response from the Church that would clearly protect children.
Despite the extensive publicity, international as well as national, when the issue erupted into a mushroom cloud over the Vatican Pope John Paul II remained disturbingly quiet. His successor, Benedict XVI, did start authorizing bishops to identify and where possible, purge offending priests, but he too was largely silent.
The issue had to wait until Francis, the third Pope since this story broke, could look into it. Francis is finding out the truth in a saying of President Reagan’s: people can vote with their feet. This is especially true in the United States. Good “pray, pay and obey” Catholics have left or are leaving the church because of disgust with how many bishops handled his matter.
The fact is attendence is down as are contributions. There isn’t a parish or diocese in the country that isn’t engaged in some form of discussion and debate on how one should respond to a Church gone astray.
Even a Bishop as good as Skylstad realizes the Church has to pro-actively do more to win back victims as well as angry laity. It has to demonstrate that it has uncovered the why and taken steps to protect children to ensure it never happens again. It has to commit itself to working sessions with dissenters where it listens first.
It has to be creative in its outreach but show it knows it needs to reclaim lost members and reintegrate them into a more open, engaged and changing Church,
At the close of his meeting Francis spoke nailed the core of the issue:: “The consciousness of the church arrived a bit late, and when consciousness arrives late, the means to resolve the problem arrive late. Perhaps the old practice of moving people around and not confronting the problem kept consciousness asleep,’ he stated. No kidding, your Holiness.
Now lead the Church further along the path that lives what it preaches.