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In 2021, the price we continue to pay
A friend observed to me that few seemed shocked about the revelations that Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the short-lived general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, apparently has been engaged in a long-term pattern of sexual misconduct. Why? It’s 2021. We’ve been through two decades of horrific stories about the clergy. It has a numbing effect after a while, no?
But this must not be. We must fight the numbness; shock is warranted. This is especially the case after 2018, when so many hoped and prayed that the Church had finally wised up after former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick’s notorious sexual predation came to light. After all, the Church looked tough at times in the aftermath. Not only did Pope Francis accept McCarrick’s resignation from the cardinalate, but the pope summoned bishops and leaders to Rome for a global summit on abuse — the first of its kind related to this scourge on the body of Christ. Pope Francis also issued new universal norms — in the motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi — related to the investigation of abuse claims or related cover-ups on the part of clerics. But, in the end, that text never really dealt with the problem, for a problem that runs deep in ecclesial life warrants reform at nearly every level. Instead, we put a flimsy Band-Aid over the cancerous lesions festering on Christ’s mystical body. And we continue to pay a price.
After the skeletons in McCarrick’s closet fell out, it seemed that the U.S. bishops were on track to finally do what should have been done in Dallas in 2002: include themselves in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Not just abusers, but cover-up artists, too. Yet just as they moved to take action, Rome intervened, citing the desire for a more universal response and derailing the U.S. bishops’ plans. In time, Vos Estis was released, which put in place a “Metropolitan model” that allowed bishops to police themselves. It was heralded as groundbreaking and sufficient — a rather incredulous conclusion, really, when you consider how ineffective bishops historically had been at policing their own priests.
Some might correctly point out that there is a difference between sexual misconduct with minors, or those directly subordinate to a cleric, and deviant sexual improprieties not deemed criminal in the court of law. While this is true, such a distinction ends up prioritizing the morality of America over the morality of the Gospel. A betrayal of priestly vows is, after all, a betrayal of Christ and his body to whom the priest, in his ministry of service, pledges his life. In the pattern of relationships that constitutes the Church — that is, in an ecclesiology of communion — no sin is private, and no sin affects only the sinner.
That brings us back to the revelations about Msgr. Burrill. It’s noteworthy that the reporting on his sexual infidelities came through the independent media portal The Pillar, whose very existence is the result of a dearth of transparency and honesty on the part of the hierarchy. This was illustrated even in the story on Burrill. After repeated attempts on the part of The Pillar to discuss the facts of their investigation — putting aside for now the ethical questions and thoroughness of their written report — the USCCB apparently was not eager to speak. Unfortunately, it was an all-too-familiar episode. In the wake of Vos Estis, resulting investigations of which are only learned about in whispers, plenty of laity have had enough — enough of the lies, enough of the obfuscations, enough of the cover-ups. Enough of so little being accomplished for the sake of truth and transparency. So for all the critiques leveled at The Pillar this week in the wake of their reportage on Msgr. Burrill — as justified as many of those critiques might be — at the end of the day, the question remains: Do we want a holier Church or don’t we? And if we do, but we don’t want it to happen this way, the Church seriously needs to recommit to honesty, transparency and — yes — holy and honorable leadership in the future. Are we really still having this conversation?
It is especially on occasions like this that I am mindful of the late Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, of Chicago, whose unparalleled voice is painfully absent in the Church today. At the forefront of my thoughts is how, in the wake of an ugly 2006 episode of notorious pederasty by one of his priests, Cardinal George bravely wrote to his presbyterate with this request:
“I want to say now that if there is any priest who is leading a double life, who is engaged in dishonest or sinful practices that destroy the Church, he should, for the sake of the Church, come forward. If a priest cannot change and convert anew, he should leave his sacred office in the Church. People rightly have high standards for us, the standards the Church herself gives us and which each of us has freely accepted. All of us are sinners, but there are types of perversion that are completely incompatible with the calling of ordained priesthood.”
Cardinal George wanted holy priests. I only hope that now, as the USCCB is shaken to its core, our episcopal leaders could and would say so, too. Holiness should be the goal of each member of the body of Christ, and those within the priesthood and other positions of leadership and influence in the Church should be especially mindful of this universal call. Anything else is a distraction.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of SimplyCatholic.com and author of a forthcoming biography of Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI.