CTSA: Accountability and the sex abuse crisis

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Los Angeles

If the unfinished business of the sexual abuse crisis in Roman Catholicism had to be expressed in one word, a theologian and a canon lawyer agreed today, it would be “accountability.”

Christopher Ruddy of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, said that the underlying issue of the crisis is “the distance generated by clericalism, which treats the clergy as a separate and superior class, virtually unanswerable to the laity.”

Ruddy and Sr. Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer and former senior official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke in a session on “Issues Behind the Sexual Abuse Crisis” during the conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

A neglect of both collegiality and synodality, Ruddy argued, lay behind the clericalist attitudes with which some bishops responded to the crisis. The lack of collegiality meant that many bishops did not feel accountable to one another, and a deficit in synodality left them equally unaccountable to their local church.

Those ecclesiological failures, Ruddy said, “bear wicked fruit in practice.”

As a case in point, he cited the $450,000 payout by the former Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, to settle a sex abuse allegation in secret, as well as recent comments from Cardinal Edward Egan of New York that he is accountable only to a hand-picked set of financial advisors, as a way of explaining his refusal to publish financial statements.

A clericalist mindset, Ruddy argued, “says that people are not worthy to be treated as adults.” He called it “an arrogance that cripples authority.”

On the subject of the lay role in the church, Ruddy said some responsibility for perpetuating clericalism resides with laity themselves, who are too often “intellectual adults but catechetically infants.” In this regard, he suggested that Pope Benedict XVI’s understanding of friendship with Christ, rooted in a “mature, adult faith,” could be helpful.

Ruddy called for a reduction in the administrative burdens of bishops to allow them more direct pastoral contact, a reduction in the size of dioceses, and reforms in the selection of bishops, in terms of both the process and the desired qualities. He also said it’s essential “to find ways for women to participate more fully in governance and decision-making.”

Euart argued that existing consultative structures in canon law should be better utilized to promote a climate of accountability.

Presbyteral councils, she suggested, can ask bishops to render an account of the activity of the review board in the diocese. The finance council can ask for reports on expenditures as well as the number and amount of legal settlements. The pastoral council can ask for reports on the implementation of sex abuse policies.

“We need a recommitment to making sure the structures that we already have work responsibly and effectively,” Euart said.

Euart too called for reform in the selection of bishops, urging an expanded interpretation of the canon which permits consultation by the nuncio with the clergy and laity of a diocese before making recommendations for episcopal nominations. Euart argued that a candidate’s “capacity for and attitude toward accountability and shared responsibility” should be part of this analysis.

With the benefit of hindsight, Euart said, it would have been better for the bishops to have conducted their discussions about sexual abuse, which date back to the mid-1980s, in full public view rather than behind closed doors, so that the public would have been aware of what the bishops had been doing for some time to deal with the problem.

Euart also called for a more clear definition of what constitutes “sexual abuse,” and for a greater commitment to financial transparency, which she termed a sine qua non of recovery from the crisis.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement