David Gibson, a former national reporter for Religion News Service, is director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
Finally, 17 years to the month after a major clergy sex scandal forced them to crack down on priests who abuse children, the Catholic bishops of the United States have set up a system designed — at least in theory — to hold their own feet to the fire if they cover up abuse.
The set of policies is “a work in progress,” as Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put it. Even they came only after years of anger and activism from reformers, and after a series of revelations had sparked a level of fury among the faithful not seen since 2002 and The Boston Globe’s eye-popping “Spotlight” investigation.
But this week’s reform package was easy compared with what comes next — namely, changing the culture of clerical privilege that everyone from the pope to victims’ groups says is at the heart of the abuse crisis. This attitude of entitlement among the higher clergy has created the conditions in which concealing misdeeds didn’t require a grand conspiracy, as has been charged. It was simply a natural reflex.
Francis took aim at that culture of entitlement again on Thursday (June 13), telling some 100 Vatican nuncios — archbishops who serve as the pope’s diplomatic emissaries around the world — that they should at all costs avoid “the danger of gifts.”
“The Bible defines as wicked the man who accepts underhand gifts, to deviate the course of justice,” Francis told them in a stern sermon on humility and obedience. “Refuse gifts that are too costly and often useless, or give them to charity, and remember that receiving a costly gift never justifies its use.”
His words could have been speaking directly to the Americans meeting in Baltimore.
On the eve of this week’s meeting, as news broke that a bishop in West Virginia had sent large cash gifts to more than 100 other clergymen, writing personal checks that were then reimbursed through sleight-of-hand accounting, all of it funded by multimillion-dollar annual revenues from a century-old gift to his diocese of a Texas oil field.
Not only that, but the news report showed that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, tasked by the Vatican with investigating the bishop, Michael Bransfield, had edited out his own name and the names of the other senior bishops and cardinals who has been recipients of Bransfield’s largesse. When this concealment came to light, Lori quickly apologized, admitted his mistake and said he would return the $7,500 he had received from Bransfield. Other top churchmen followed suit.
The problem is that if Bransfield is a particularly egregious example of the culture of rewarding friends and cultivating allies with gifts and cash — and living far better than most of one’s flock — he is not a total outlier.
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Source: Religion News Service