Beliefs Cathy Lynn Grossman: Faith and Reason Opinion

Off with his hat! Why we want to see cardinals punished in the abuse scandal

Catholic cardinals are visible anywhere with their red hats. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)

We’ve all seen some sad spectacle about the Catholic Church this week.

“Spotlight” – portraying Boston Globe’s shattering expose of Cardinal Bernard Law’s archdiocese sheltering, promoting and protecting sex-abusive priests – won the Academy Award for Best Picture prize.

The next day, Australian Cardinal George Pell testified to a Vatican commission that he cared little or nothing about the victims of sex abuse – even as he called such neglect “indefensible.”

Thursday (March 3) , he met with Australian abuse victims and pledged to work with them  on care and compensation for people who had experienced abuse.

RELATED STORY: Cardinal George Pell, top Vatican official, meets abuse victims after testimony

Australian Cardinal George Pell, shown here in 2013, testified in Rome in March, 2016 about overlooking abuse by priests while he was Archbishop in Sydney. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Australian Cardinal George Pell, shown here in 2013, testified in Rome in March, 2016 about overlooking abuse by priests while he was Archbishop in Sydney. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Is that enough?

Between Law and Pell, two princes of the church, we have witnessed decades of the church staggering to recognize and apologize for its failure to protect uncountable numbers of victims.

Here and there, a bishop has stepped aside. Just last month, Pope Francis said on his flight home from Mexico that any bishop who moved an abusive priest from one parish to another should resign.

Sadly, that stark comment was lost in the hubbub over his remark on Donald “not a Christian” Trump.

But even if anyone had noticed — is that comment still too little, too late?

Forgive me, Lord, but like many outraged by this scandal — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — I still want a perp walk.

You remember the perp walk — accused bad guys led off before cameras. It leapt from TV crime shows to the financial front pages in 2002 when we were treated to scenes of humiliated, hand-cuffed Enron top executives facing charges for financial chicanery. Suits in cuffs!

I don’t need to see handcuffs on cardinals but the optical equivalent would work. I want to see someone take Cardinal Pell aside and make him turn in his red cap.

Francis doesn’t need publicly show this, like a disgraced legionnaire getting publicly stripped of his epaulettes in old movies. But a photo of Pell, sans cardinal regalia, toting his own suitcase back to Sydney to face the music there,  would work for me.

The Sydney Morning Herald puts it bluntly: “If Pope Francis wants to retain his reputation as the people’s Pope he must force Cardinal George Pell to either resign or retire.”

Pell didn’t resign Thursday. Neither did he retire. And would retirement be good enough? Consider Cardinal Law.

Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to retire as Archbishop of Boston when the abuse scandal exploded there. He moved to prestigious posts in Rome.

Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to retire as Archbishop of Boston when the abuse scandal exploded there. He moved to prestigious posts in Rome.

Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston after his own priests went public calling for him to go. And go he did – to a posting in Rome where, for years, he was assigned a lovely church for saying Mass and served on the secretariat that suggests names to the pope for potential new bishops. He still lives far from those he harmed.

There’s my problem, wrapped in cardinal red.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, an expert on Vatican polity, explains the dilemma: Cardinals are princes of the church and bishops are its nobles. They can’t resign from their spiritual status. But they can resign from their institutional role.

“The minimum we want is for them to stand up and say that they did wrong and they take full personal responsibility and resign. If they did that, I think we can accept that. We might even forgive them,” said Reese.

“But when they fight tooth and nail to stay in their job with all its perks, we are offended,” he said.

“The cardinals wear red because they are willing to die for the church,” said Reese. “They ought to be willing to take a bullet for the good of the church and resign. It’s the closest thing the church has to capital punishment.”

Why do I feel so vengeful about this? And am I alone in this feeling? I suspect not.

It’s human, says criminologist and lawyer Gray Cavender, who co-authored a scholarly paper on the social and emotional dynamics of the “perp walk” in the Enron case.

“We all grew up with movies and novels where the story ends with the bad guy getting shot or arrested. We like that. It seems just. They hurt someone and they shouldn’t get away with it.”

“There is a symbolic dimension to punishment. It expresses society’s condemnation of the wrongdoer,” said Cavender, a professor in the department of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

Cavender was well aware of the decades of abuse within the church. He cited the 1985 expose on victims in Louisiana published by the National Catholic Reporter and the early 1990s years when Dallas journalists revealed the church’s failure to remove a pedophile priest, Rudolph Kos.

RELATED STORY: How ‘Spotlight’ missed the story (COMMENTARY)

(The “Spotlight” movie alludes briefly to earlier investigations and then, tragically, to how the Globe, too, had lightly covered the issue and then let it drop for years before turning full force on it in 2002.)

“What makes the Catholic Church’s situation doubly a problem is that it went on for so long and even when exposes were written, it still went on,” Cavender said.

We are angry that leaders of “a powerful institution, one that people revere and love, knew they were hurting people and hit it and lied about it. People are suffering victimization,” he said.

This underlies our applause for the Spotlight ensemble’s Oscar night message that this honor be a message all the way to the Vatican.

RELATED STORY: Vatican sex abuse commission ends turbulent meeting, cites progress

The Vatican response: It was full of praise for the film, coupled with long lists of all the things the church is now doing to try to right the wrongs. It’s even set up an internal court to examine colluding clerics.

It just hasn’t heard any cases yet.

And too much time has gone by apologies to be sufficient.

The public, says Cavender, is past that. “Saying sorry is not enough.

There are harms not reparable by apologies, he said. What we want them to do is ‘own it.’ There is a symbolic, communicative aspect to punishment. We need to see it.”



About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • Thank you Ms. Grossman and whichever RNS editor permitted this extremely rare critique of Pope Francis. When he said that any bishop who moved an abusive priest from one parish to another should resign he, in fact, was telling all the bishops in the world that they would not be held accountable, would not be removed, for aiding, abetting, covering-up or failing to report sex abuse to civil authorities.
    Mr. Clohessy is a courageous and indefatigable advocate for the survivors. Pope Francis has done nothing to deter future wrongdoing.

  • I don’t think this is about “retribution” per se. Rather, it’s about trust, or the lack of it, not just in those who lead the church, but ever more, in the church itself. So that “perp walk” may well be less about vengeance, as it is an honest and sincere desire to believe that those who lead the church “get” the damage the scandal has done to the church, and very much want the church to clean what two different popes has now described as “this filth” up. That “perp walk” would be a sign that the messages have been receive, and a desire exists to actually start the cleanup process.

    The ABSENCE of that perp walk is fueling a growing sense of unease, that those at the top are comfortable with the status quo, and that’s NOT what most in the church need to hear right now.

  • “The ABSENCE of that perp walk is fueling a growing sense of unease, that those at the top are comfortable with the status quo, and that’s NOT what most in the church need to hear right now.”…..and it’s exactly why I left the Roman church.

  • I echo each of the comments above (Well, maybe not Fran.), and want to see some type of crystal clear version of the perpetual walk. I want to see the RCC hierarchy KNOW the shame of what they’ve done. I want to see the entire organization KNOW that abusing children and other vulnerable people is a heinous crime that they WILL be punished for like any other criminal on the street.

  • I was just wondering how many bishops would be left in office if the guilty truly resigned their positions. . .

  • Who cares how many would be left? If they are responsible for the irreparable harm left in their wake good riddance!

  • Off with his hat has a rhetorical flourish but it reflects the manic melodrama of the Mad Duchess of Alice in Wonderland to closely Yes we are horrified by the pure evil of child abuse and the sheer cunning with which they avoided detection and punishment for so long but the current climate is the equivalence of the old lynch mobs of the wild west.
    Are people aware that in America innocent priests have been jailed on the basis of allegations made against them only for it to be discovered they were the victims of collusion between scam artists and shonky lawyers eager to obtain the cash settlements on offer?
    You cannot have a climate where because a person is religious they are immediately presumed guilty. Yes there were far too many cases of real abuse and yes it was handled very badly by the Church. All large organisations both secular and religious that paedophiles infiltrated were initially paralysed at the discovery of such evil and floundered in their response.

  • Yes he did warn us there would be wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers. The fruits you refer to are those of the evil perpetrators and who fuels and owns their hearts? The devil is surely smiling.
    The organization of the Church is not evil. Look to the marvellous work of Mother Teresa’s nuns and the thousands of pure and dedicated religious labouring in the vineyard . The devil would love us to turn on each other. What matters moving on is that we render love and support to all victims of abuse and help them in any way they need,
    Terrible mistakes have been made and they have been admitted re the handling of abuse .

  • Yes the perpetrators of abuse must be punished but the principle of innocent until proven guilty must not be sacrificed. If you enlarge guilt to include failing to act based on rumour or suspicion you enter the realm of a Salem witch trial mentality. Even if some abusers escaped human justice by suiciding or absconding to other places they can never escape Divine Justice “woe to those who scandalise my little ones”
    Should the parent who failed to know their child was abused or the parent who did not believe their child be charged and found guilty of failing to act? Obviously not-they have surely suffered enough. It is time to move forward united in love and sadder but wiser.

  • Yes he has by putting out such a statement he has made it clear that in the future they must not do such a thing. In other words the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated.

  • Perp walk isn’t this the language of American movies or detective novels? Trial by media with people banging on prison vans as people are brought to face trial?
    This issue is too tragic too deep a sorrow and too dark an evil for it to be explored and discussed with this type of language.
    Our white hot anger is justified but anger must be kept in check and channelled into constructive action of real help not a demand for an emotional catharsis to appease our own sense of guilt that such horrors could have occurred to innocent children.

  • Frustration puts it mildly. Francis needs to act on these cases and he needs to act now. Too much time has gone by with no action and the action he has taken- to appoint a man a cardinal in South American known for covering up abuse is appalling. What can we do as the people of God to provide some sense of justice to those abused?

  • Mary
    I would agree with you that jailing folks unjustly is wrong. But I also find it awfully hard to believe that there are no bishops who SHOULD have been removed and laicized over all of this. There’s been a long parade of these guys, and it seems that the way the church deals with them is to protect them until they can take a normal retirement, and then let them retire in peace, as if nothing ever happened. Just as jailing these guys under a guilt by association kind of thing is wrong, so is the other end of the spectrum, wherein the church’a leadership acts publicly as if it believes NO wrongs were done by the bishops.

    That problem needs to be fixed, and just as in almost every other organizaiton, the most effective way is to start at the top. The recent Grand Jury report from Altoona, PA reminds us how little has changed in the church since teh scandal first broke, when it comes to the handling of bishops.

  • “Cardinals wear red because they are willing to die for the church.”
    Well, all I have to say is;