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Somehow, the Catholic Church Is Still Getting Worse

The latest horrific revelations of sexual abuse unpunished show, yet again, that the Church's first tactic is to make excuses and hide.
December 20, 2018, 11:11pm

On Thursday, the New York Times published yet another damning report about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the latest in an endless series of horror stories about a broken institution that has long provided predators with access to children. In this case, Reverend Donald G. Timone, a priest repeatedly accused of sexual abuse, was revealed to have administered mass in New York as recently as earlier this month. This despite the Archdiocese of New York, the second-largest in the United States, being under immense pressure to hold abusers to account, with the Church at large embroiled in a global scandal that shows no signs of relenting. To that end, in September, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced a sex-abuse review board, headed by a former federal judge, to look into how crimes and other wrongdoing have been dealt with in the past, and how investigations might be improved on going forward.


According to the Times, Timone was already involved with another entity, the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, a Church-sponsored panel created by Cardinal Dolan that sounds like something Winston Smith might stumble upon in 1984. That body paid settlements in cases involving at least two Timone accusers last year, one of whom committed suicide in 2015. The logical follow-up to would seem to be the priest's defrocking, but no, actually: The archdiocese, which previously suspended Timone in 2002, never made a definitive ruling on his "fitness"—though it has since reopened his case—which left him free to operate in an official capacity around vulnerable members of the faith.

In other words, arcane loopholes, even now, are allowing credibly accused abusers to operate unfettered. Meanwhile, Catholics everywhere—and lapsed Catholics, like me—are left to wonder how their Church, which has faced such withering scrutiny for so long, can keep getting it so wrong over and over again.

After all, this latest revelation came only hours after news broke that the names of about 500 priests accused of sex abuse in Illinois had been previously withheld from the public, according to the state's attorney general. It's probably a cliché, at this point, to say this stuff induces the worst kind of déjà vu. But this summer saw blow after blow for the Catholic Church, most notably the resignation of Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, DC, from the College of Cardinals, and the attorney general in Pennsylvania concluding that just six of the state's dioceses included 300 priests who sexually abused at least 1,000 children since 1947. Now, dozens of similar probes are being conducted by attorneys general across the country—as many as 45 states were said to be seeking relevant documents—and they ring so familiar that they very nearly blur together.

Obviously, it's easy to be cynical about an organization like the Catholic Church. After well over a year of steady revelations about sexual misconduct by powerful people (mostly men) in all walks of life, the Church stands apart as having been publicly implicated for decades. But somehow it keeps making itself look more and more absurd, even in the twilight of 2018. As the Washington Post reported, the organizers of Pope Francis's February 2019 summit on combatting sexual abuse just asked "the estimated 130 presidents of national bishops’ conferences" to meet with survivors before arriving, as if that, amazingly, was something they needed to be instructed to do. (The Vatican was said to be worried the institution's credibility was at risk. Who would have thought?) And let's not forget that, only a few weeks ago, the Vatican insisted US bishops at a conference in Baltimore not move forward on a vote for action in addressing the abuse crisis.

Capturing some of the exhausted but still incredulous rage coursing through Americans inside and outside the faith on Thursday, Esquire's Charles Pierce went so far as to call the Church "a worldwide conspiracy to obstruct justice."


Pierce's statement might have some Christopher Hitchens–level bombast to it, but what this Timone situation shows, yet again, is that the Church is completely incapable of holding itself accountable, despite styling its leaders the moral arbiters of humanity. Timone has essentially been able to continue being a holy man because of a convoluted technicality; the 500 names in Illinois, one has to suspect, are just among the first of hundreds or thousands more concealed names we're likely to learn about.

But the Catholic Church has always been relatively unified around one thing: making excuses. (Maybe refusing to concede blame comes at a close second.) If it is to really earn back our trust or at least grudging respect—both of its parishioners, alienated followers like myself, and everyone else—it needs to stop purporting to police itself. I can tell you now what the takeaway from next year's winter meeting should be: an admission of catastrophic, decades- or centuries-long wrongdoing and affirmation of a willingness—a more transparent willingness—to be judged by an independent, secular body with real teeth at every level.

It should take a page out of its own book, or at least revisit it with the future in mind: "Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right."

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