By John Garvey, President
CatholicU, Summer 2019

It’s been one year since the Archdiocese of New York revealed allegations against Theodore McCarrick, and a state attorney general released a grand jury report on abuse in six diocese in Pennsylvania. In the wake of those revelations last summer, I wrote to the University community recalling the command heard by St. Francis of Assisi to “rebuild my Church, which is in ruins.” I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, whether the Church is in ruins, but it does feel more like it than anything I have experienced. 

This past year every Catholic, from Pope Francis to the regular Sunday Massgoer, has asked the same question: What do we do now? We are all looking for a vision that will renew the Church. 

One suggestion that has gotten a lot of attention is the lay review board. Introduced in the Dallas Charter after the last round of revelations in 2002, these boards have been formed to investigate sexual abuse allegations against priests. They have a majority of lay experts (people who don’t work for the diocese) in psychology, finance, business, and law. We learned last summer that the Dallas Charter offered no such mechanism for allegations against bishops. 

In May, Pope Francis introduced new measures to bridge this gap. His proclamation (Vos Estis Lux Mundi) proposes, though it does not require, a reliance on lay experts to carry out investigations. In June the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a plan to implement this idea, and to create a national third-party reporting system for complaints. 

There is some unhappiness over aspects of these responses. Neither Vos Estis nor the USCCB’s plan requires lay participation (though there will be immense public pressure to employ it in any individual case). And lay people investigating a bishop have to report to a senior archbishop of the province where the abuse took place — an arrangement that bothers people who entertain suspicions about the episcopacy generally.

I have my own suggestions for improving the adjudication of abuse cases. But rather than talk about tinkering with the machinery, I want to make two more important points. The first is that any process for cleaning up the Church’s mess will repose final judgment in some fallible person or group. (Lay people gave us Enron, WorldCom, and FIFA.) Transparency is the best we can hope for.

Second, scrupulous attention to process will not bring disaffected Catholics back to the Church. People don’t join the Church because it is well run. Think of the creed we recite at Mass each day. We believe in the Church because it is holy. We join it (we are baptized) for the forgiveness of sins. The scandals of the past year are above all a call to holiness.

This goes for bishops and priests. It goes for us lay people too. This is the most important thing we can do to pull the Church out of the ditch. It’s what the Second Vatican Council said in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium): 

Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”