Confronting a Culture of Secrecy — and Worse

Nobody denies anymore the culture of secrecy and cover-up in the Catholic Church, but what if it is simply part and parcel of an even worse culture, one of pedophilia?

How else to explain what has been revealed again and again as common practice among clergy? Especially as, hard on the heels of Cardinal Terrance McCarrick’s fall from grace came the Pennsylvania  grand jury’s report on the abuse perpetrated by clergy in that state over decades.

By Milliped [CC BY 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Catholic Church abuse scandal graffitti, Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Milliped, CC BY 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of the Pennsylvania report, New York Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, has subpoenaed the eight dioceses in her state for all documents having any reference to sexual abuse cases in what is being called “a broadening civil investigation into the handling of sex abuse allegations by church leaders.” And the attorneys general of Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico have also announced they will investigate sexual abuse by priests.

Here in Nova Scotia, Archbishop Anthony Mancini (whose Halifax-Yarmouth diocese faces a proposed class-action suit over sexual abuse allegations) told the Canadian Press, “[I]t is evident that the evil goes deeper than imagined.”

The Pennsylvania report says that over 70 years, more than 1,000 children were abused by “about 300 priests in six dioceses” in the state.

Mancini quotes Pope Benedict’s reference to the scandal as the “filth” in the Church, but both Popes John Paul ll and Benedict XVI were obviously aware of the “filth” and yet refused to demand that bishops and archbishops defrock known abusers. Instead, they were allowed to shift them from parish to parish, with no explanation to their former parishioners as to why they were being moved or, come to think of it, warning to their new parishioners that they were on their way!


Pope Francis, on the eve of his recent visit to Ireland, issued a letter to Catholics around the world, condemning what he called “these atrocities” and their cover-up, but as the AP’s Nicole Winfield reported, nowhere in the letter did he offer any indication of “how he plans to sanction complicit bishops or end the Vatican’s long-standing culture of secrecy.”

One has to sympathize with Pope Francis to a certain degree, given that it falls to him to finally face the fact of a clerical culture of sexual abuse that has existed within the Church since God knows when. (Francis, himself, will have to admit his own failings with regard to the worldwide phenomenon of priestly pedophilia as he condemns the church’s lack of action to correct it.)

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, visiting a Bayonne church in 2008. (Source: Jersey Journal)

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, visiting a Bayonne church in 2008. (Source: Jersey Journal)

In fact, rather than being punished for their crimes, some predators were rewarded, if not for them, then certainly despite them.

Take McCarrick. According to the Catholic News Agency (CNA) the Rev. Boniface Ramsey, a staff member of Immaculate Conception Seminary in New Jersey, wrote to the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, on 22 November 22, 2000, to complain about Cardinal McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians when McCarrick was also on the staff of the seminary.

The CNA story includes a copy of the response Ramsey received from then-Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, a Vatican official, dated 11 October 2006 (!), acknowledging the Nuncio’s receipt of the letter and questioning Ramsey about McCarrick, who was being considered for a Vatican posting (!!). In the meantime, McCarrick had been appointed Archbishop of Washington in November of 2000 by Pope John Paul ll and then made a Cardinal by the same pope on 21 February 2001.

A New York Times investigation into McCarrick’s extracurricular activities (which included bedding seminarians) revealed that tens of thousands of dollars had been paid out to complainants who had been abused by McCarrick while he served as Bishop in New Jersey in the 1980s. Even Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who has called for the resignation of Pope Francis, accusing him (probably rightly) of being aware of McCarrick’s shenanigans, has himself been accused of interfering with the investigation into yet another bishop who had covered up for abusive priests in his diocese. (Sometimes it seems as though there is nothing but pots and kettles in this debate.)


Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse continues to shock its members as the depth and breadth of the scandal is revealed on an almost daily basis. And it’s not at all surprising that some who have been been watching the horrors unfold believe Pope Francis is tiring, not only of the scandal but of attempts to deal with it to the satisfaction of Catholics around the world.

John L. Allen, Jr. (Source: Twitter)

John L. Allen, Jr. (Source: Twitter)

Some blame the celibate life of clergy for the pedophilia so rampant in the organization,  but breaking vows is human (as many married heterosexuals can testify), sexually abusing children is criminal.

And those who argue that it “happens in all walks of life” and in “all institutions” have forgotten that clergy have always been held in awe; have been trusted, by virtue of their status as clergy, with children. To my mind, they have much more to answer for — they have betrayed their  calling to be “other Christs” to those whom they serve.

The responses to the abuse scandals in the Catholic (and other) churches have been interesting to see. The call to stop contributing to one’s parish church seems to be a popular one, but could only result in biting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Given that so many churches have been closed due to shrinking congregations and financial contributions, what would be the result if parishioners began ignoring the collection basket? Especially those parishioners fortunate enough to have a parish, a pastor and a community still willing to give of their time and energy to the support of that parish.

Many Catholics I’ve spoken to believe the Vatican should have paid and should still be paying for the sins of clergy who have perpetrated acts of abuse, but imagine how long it would have taken to get justice and compensation from the Vatican, which was aware of the many bishops who continued to move abusers from one parish to another where their nefarious deeds continued.

The same Vatican that, according to John L Allen, Jr, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, 2010, argues that bishops are not its “employees,” meaning  Rome has no responsibility for their actions nor, one assumes, for the actions of priests under their control.

Any attempt to sue the Vatican for the actions (or inaction) of bishops would be a hard-fought, probably futile undertaking. As Allen writes, “No court in America is going to put a lien on St. Peter’s Basilica.” On the other hand, he quotes Edward Peters, a layman and “one of America’s premier canon law lawyers,” who says bishops didnt fail to report abuse because Vatican policy “tied their hands.”

Those calling for Pope Francis to resign though, might give serious thought to the many conservative cardinals who are still very much present in the Vatican and who have generally fought tooth and nail against any of the various reforms Francis has made. Given that they still retain much power, one of this crowd could very well be chosen as the next pope.


Still, those in a position to do so should be loud and clear in demanding changes to the status quo. In fact, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Pennsylvania has suggested to the pope that he cancel his planned 2018 Synod of Bishops focused on youth and replace it with one focused on the lives of bishops. God knows they have to answer for a great deal. Presumably, such a synod would involve Canadian bishops as well, giving Catholics across this country the opportunity to share their concerns and questions about the state of the Church in 2018. Francis has told young people to “speak out,” but that should apply to all Catholics.

The only kind of picture available when you google "female cardinal"...for now.

The only kind of picture available when you google “female cardinal”…for now.

And the Jesuit theologian James Keenan, writing in the National Catholic Reporter , believes it’s time for women to be more involved at the highest level of the church hierarchy, that is, as Cardinals, although he says there’s no need for them to be ordained.

The Catholic Women’s Forum, an initiative of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has sent letters to the pope asking questions about Cardinal McCarrick and exactly when Francis became aware of abuse claims against him.

Women, including our own Catholic Women’s League, should be asking more questions generally. I looked at old resolutions to discover what, if any, questions this group of almost 80,000 Canadian women has raised about the sex abuse scandal, but could find none. Surely it must have been addressed at diocesan or national conventions over the past few years, but if it was, the discussion didn’t result in any resolution being passed. (If it did, I gladly stand to be corrected.)

Keenan suggests that the pope begin by naming eight women (preferably theologians, of whom there are many available to serve) as Cardinals, inviting them to take their place at the table with their male counterparts. That, as Keenan says, would be an indication of reform. (Female deacons as a possibility are not high on his list of reforms, nor on anyone’s at the Vatican it seems, given the lack of any report from Pope Francis’ committee to study the history of the female diaconate, but I digress…)

The situation in which the Catholic Church finds itself is very much of its own making, and from where I sit (and it’s not always in a pew), I believe there are many who hate what’s been happening in “their church” over the years.

Many clergy and lay people are calling on Catholics to pray for the Church — to call on the Holy Spirit to solve the problems it now faces, but I would wonder where the Holy Spirit has been hiding, given that it was to “be with us for all days” (or words to that effect),  guiding us on the road to eternity. Pray if you wish, but something more concrete must be done if the Church is ever to reclaim its place in the minds and hearts of many former adherents.



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.






The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported. Please consider subscribing today!