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Q&A about the Sexual Abuse Crisis

August 28, 2018


(Note: The text below has been transcribed from the video above. Click here for the YouTube version of the same video.)


QUESTION: We wanted to do this dialogue to talk about all the recent events going on in the Church, from the Archbishop McCarrick scandal, to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, to the Archbishop Viganò letter. Let’s start off with a general question: What was your initial reaction when you first heard about the McCarrick news, and then about the Pennsylvania grand jury report?

BISHOP BARRON: Well, it was one of shock, and dismay, and depression—whatever negative words I could possibly summon. I think with the Pennsylvania report, certainly we had known about sexual abuse by clergy going back many decades. But some of the gross and terrible details that came forward were just stomach-turning. And I don’t hesitate to say that there was really a demonic element that you see in these things. So that’s what struck me in that awful Pennsylvania report.

With the McCarrick situation, I was struck by the fact that the abuse was going on at such a high level, that the corruption had reached that part of the Church’s life. I also was struck by the similarity to the “Me Too” movement, because not only was it a sexual assault—it was certainly that—but also a terrible abuse of power. These young men wanted the priesthood, and this was the man that could give it to them or deny it of them. So it was a terrible abuse of power and authority. There’s some of the novelty or some of the different texture, I think, in these two cases.


QUESTION: I know you’re a student of Church history. You’re familiar with the long history of problems and scandals in the Catholic Church. How do you see this crisis comparing to past crises?

BISHOP BARRON: It’s the worst in our history, meaning American Catholic Church history, for sure. If you’d asked me twenty-five years ago, I would have said that terrible period in the nineteenth century when churches and convents were being burned down, and when there were political parties organized in an explicitly anti-Catholic way. But the scandals from 2002 and now in this time far surpass that in terms of their damage to the Church and their damage to people’s lives. So it’s the worst in American Catholic Church history, for sure. It’s important, I think, for all of us Catholics to realize that we’re passing through this particularly terrible time, and that we have to seize the moment. It’s time for us to act. We can’t simply be passive in the face of this terrible crisis.


QUESTION: I know the first instinct for a lot of people, and I’m sure you share it, is: “What are we going to do? We want to take action to not only bring justice to these situations but to make sure they don’t happen again.” And we’re going to discuss what we can do here in just a moment. But before we do, I wanted to ask you about how important it is to keep the focus on the victims of these egregious crimes and to call them what they are. They’re not just boundary violations. They’re something more specific and serious. Talk about that need.

BISHOP BARRON: I think that was actually a helpful thing in the Pennsylvania report. They did away with a lot of those euphemisms, and they named what was going on, which was a great criminal act: the sexual abuse of children and of young people, the sexual assault of human beings. So I think we shouldn’t play word games, and we shouldn’t cover up. We should say what these things are. Terrible crimes were committed, and they were committed by people who were dedicated to Christ and to the Church, who were meant to embody the presence of Jesus in the world, which made those crimes that much greater and that much more destructive—physically, psychologically, spiritually.

Maybe fifty years ago people didn’t quite understand how lives were shattered by these acts. If we don’t understand it now, we’re blind, deaf, and stupid. Lives were shattered, broken, destroyed by these acts. So I think it is important for us to name them as crimes of sexual assault and sexual violence.


QUESTION: What’s your take on the suggestion that many people have made that at the root of all of these problems is clericalism? What’s your take on that?

BISHOP BARRON: Anything as complex as this phenomenon has multiple causes. One of the fallacies in logic we talk about is the fallacy of single causality. Almost every event has multiple causes.

Now, I don’t hesitate for a minute to say clericalism—by which I mean, this terrible abuse of privilege and power—is one of the causes. When a member of the clergy, who should see himself as in service to the community, takes his position as an opportunity to exercise violence and power over people, to that degree I’d say clericalism is part of the problem.

But I also go back to what Richard John Neuhaus said many years ago during the first wave of this crisis: the three causes of this problem are infidelity, infidelity, and infidelity. Lack of faithfulness to one’s priestly vows, one’s priestly identity, is absolutely basic. Is homosexuality also something we should mention? Sure. I think 80 percent of these cases involve males sexually assaulting other males. Now, we also have to be careful, and it’s important to make distinctions. This is not to say that every homosexual person is apt to sexual violence, or that priests with same-sex attraction are necessarily going to engage in this kind of activity. Obviously not; there’s no evidence for that. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the vast majority of these cases involve males inflicting sexual violence on other males. Is that worth looking at? Yes, absolutely. So I would look at a range of causes—those and others besides.


QUESTION: Let’s talk about the effects of all of these instances of abuse. As we mentioned, the focus should obviously remain on the victims who are directly affected by this horrific abuse. But beyond that, how do these crimes affect the greater Body of Christ?

BISHOP BARRON: I’ve said this scandal is a diabolical masterpiece, because it undermines the work of the Church in practically every way. In my case as an evangelizer, my mission is to propagate the Church’s teaching, to make the Church attractive to people, to draw them to Christ. What would be a more effective way to undermine and undo that work than to have priests engaging in the sexual abuse of young people? In terms of our credibility, in terms of our role in the public forum—choose your issue—we’re undermined in every way by this, which is why we have to come to grips fully with it. We can’t rest until the thing has been solved.

And I say that with a lot of passion, because the three great tasks of the Church—to worship God, to serve the poor, and to evangelize, as Pope Benedict XVI said—are all undermined and compromised by this crisis. Just think for a moment of the money—well in excess of billions of dollars—paid out, money that could have and should have gone to the care for the poor, the building of institutions, etc. Just in that way, the Church’s work is dramatically undermined. So until we come fully to grips with it, the Church is not going to move forward.


QUESTION: One proposed solution that I’ve seen a lot, especially on the internet, is this: the American bishops are so compromised that we need to just clean house and get rid of all the bishops. What’s your reaction to that?

BISHOP BARRON: I never think that injustice is solved by more injustice. I understand the emotional appeal of that: “Let’s just clean house. All these guys are guilty.” But that’s simply false. Not all these guys are guilty. And I’m not saying that in some self-serving way. It’s simply the case that the overwhelming majority of priests and bishops are not guilty of these crimes. And so that sort of indiscriminate sweeping away actually produces more injustice, not less. It doesn’t solve the original problem by adding more injustice to it.

Secondly, more pragmatically, it would produce chaos overnight in a bishops conference the size of ours. You’re talking about 270-some active bishops in this country. You’d invite chaos overnight. But the more fundamental problem is it’s just a deep injustice. So I know it’s emotionally appealing, but I don’t think it’s a morally attractive option.


QUESTION: It seems that there are really two responses that are both necessary when it comes to the abuse crisis. One is the spiritual renewal of the Church, the spiritual response. The other is the response of practical action, which I know a lot of people are demanding. After the McCarrick scandal broke, you wrote an article proposing one immediate practical response. You said:

I would suggest (as a lowly back-bencher auxiliary) that the bishops of the United States—all of us—petition the Holy Father to form a team, made up mostly of faithful lay Catholics skilled in forensic investigation, and to empower them to have access to all of the relevant documentation and financial records. Their task should be to determine how Archbishop McCarrick managed, despite his widespread reputation for iniquity, to rise through the ranks of the hierarchy and to continue, in his retirement years, to function as a roving ambassador for the Church and to have a disproportionate influence on the appointment of bishops. They should ask the ecclesial version of Sen. Howard Baker’s famous questions: “What did the responsible parties know and when did they know it?” Only after these matters are settled will we know what the next steps ought to be.

You wrote that after the McCarrick news first broke. Do you still think that’s the right way forward?

BISHOP BARRON: Yes. And I’m not trying to claim any great credit, but it was not long after I wrote that statement that the USCCB leadership came out with a very similar proposal—namely, that we have to petition the Vatican, because only the Vatican can police bishops. We can’t really police ourselves in that strict sense. The conference cannot impose sanctions on bishops. So they said we have to petition the Vatican to sponsor a largely lay-led investigation to look into what made the McCarrick debacle possible. I fully supported that. They were echoing a lot of things I had said in my own article, and I still think that’s the best way forward.

And we should keep our eyes on this particular issue. I know we’re tempted to run in every possible direction, to solve every relevant problem. And maybe in time we’ll see all of those implications. But I think for the moment, we have to figure out what happened with McCarrick—and how it happened—and get at the responsible people. And we have to do it in a way that gives the priority to laypeople skilled, as I said in the article, in forensic investigation. I’m not skilled in that. I don’t know all the right questions to ask, all the ways to analyze documentation. But let’s get laypeople that are. Secondly, the Church ought to give full access to the relevant documentation, to provide access to the relevant people, etc. So yes, I would fully support and continue to support that approach.


QUESTION: Let’s talk now about the spiritual response to a crisis like this. In times of great crisis and depravity, how ought the people of God respond spiritually?

BISHOP BARRON: I know it can sound like a glib platitude, but first of all through prayer. We have to invoke the Holy Spirit. We have to recommit ourselves to Christ. We also ought to return to the spiritual sources—not run from them. I understand the temptation. People in their frustration will understandably say, “I’m through with the Church.” No. This is the moment to return to the great spiritual sources. That means the Gospel, it means the Mass, it means the saints, it means all the vehicles of prayer, etc. That’s extremely important as well.

And I have no quarrel whatsoever with laypeople making their voices heard. I made my voice heard as a member of the bishops conference. Nothing prevents a layperson from saying, “Here’s what I think the Church ought to do.” Bring it to the attention of the relevant authorities. The people of God have that kingly responsibility themselves. All baptized people are priests, prophets, and kings. Well, this is under the “kingly” rubric of the governance of the Church. I’m not proposing the Church as a democracy. But the baptized have a kingly responsibility, so I think that’s an altogether valid thing for the laity to do.


QUESTION: Let’s talk now about the recent letter that Archbishop Viganò produced, this eleven-page report where he makes some pretty blunt accusations against many high-ranking Church officials. First of all, what was your initial reaction to that letter? Secondly, where do we go from here now that the letter’s been sent out?

BISHOP BARRON: Well, it was a bombshell. I was in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. I was sound asleep, and I got a phone call to say, “You have to read this.” And it was the middle of the night, so I just got an overview of it. The next morning, I actually did a first cursory reading of it. And it was indeed a bombshell. There are extraordinary charges being made, including against the Holy Father himself. So it was a bit shocking, especially in that environment—in Ireland, with the Pope, for the World Meeting of Families. So I think it was, to say the least, unnerving for any Catholic.

Now, what do we do going forward? Here, I’d like to add my voice to that of the executive committee of the USCCB. Cardinal DiNardo, the president of the conference, issued a statement reiterating what was said a couple weeks prior—namely, that we should proceed with a Vatican-sponsored but largely lay-led investigation to figure out what happened with McCarrick.

And I would say this. If you had asked me two weeks ago, “If you were advising that committee, whom would you say they should talk to?” Well, on my short list of people to talk to would have been Carlo Maria Viganò, the Apostolic Nuncio during some of these relevant years. Well, now that he’s come forward with a statement, I’d say, “Okay. Fair enough. He’s made his testimony.”

Now, do we buy it hook, line, and sinker? Well, no. In fact, as I read the document, there were things that seemed highly speculative to me. Some things seemed very driven by emotion. But other things seemed far more substantive and specific and—at least he claims—tied to documentation. Is it worth looking at? Yes. You bet. This is not some minor player. This is the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. When I was at my first meeting after first becoming a bishop, it was Archbishop Viganò who rose to speak to us on behalf of the Pope. So this is not an insubstantial figure, and he’s making some serious claims. I’d say look into them. Let’s take an honest, objective look at what’s being claimed here.

Finally, the question that matters is: What’s the truth? The truth will set us free. It’s so easy to get distracted from that question; you see it all the time. And I totally understand that people’s emotions are stirred up, and they want to run off and look at all kinds of other related issues. But finally, in regard to the McCarrick situation: What’s the truth? Let’s do all we can to get at that. It seems to me that’s the most important thing. It’s also what I’d recommend in regard to the Viganò testimony. Let’s honestly and objectively analyze it and let this group we’re talking about—a Vatican-sponsored, largely lay-led group of people skilled in forensic investigation—look into these claims. And then I think we’ll get the best access to what the truth is.


QUESTION: I like what Cardinal DiNardo said in the statement you just referenced from the USCCB’s executive committee: “The recent letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò brings particular focus and urgency to this examination. The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.” He’s saying that, either way, we should take it seriously and look into it, right?

BISHOP BARRON: Right. Amen; I agree with that. What’s the truth? Let’s find out. Anything else is going to get us distracted and will lead to moral trouble, as he’s describing there. Either guilty people get off, or innocent people are blamed. What’s the truth? Let’s find out. Only the truth will set us free. Should we be frightened or limited in that quest? I would say no. We should give this investigation full rein, and let it have access to all the relevant documentation. 


QUESTION: The Church is not merely a non-governmental organization or charity. We’re Christian; we’re Christocentric. So where does the Lord come into all this? What role does Jesus have to play in a crisis of this magnitude?

BISHOP BARRON: He has every role to play, in a way. One of the great mysteries is what they call the mysterium iniquitatis—the mystery of evil. There is physical evil—the mystery of why innocent people die in hurricanes and tsunamis and so on—but then this maybe even more troubling issue of moral iniquity. Why does God permit it?

The classical answer of our tradition is that God permits certain evils to bring out of them a greater good. Therefore, we should always look at the possible good that might come out of this evil situation. What are the signs of life we could look for? How is Christ cleansing and purifying his Church? To me, this time witnesses to Christ. It’s not a sign of his absence. It witnesses to Christ.

Think of John the Baptist, when he announces the coming of the Lord: “His winnowing fan is in his hand.” Well, what is that but the separating of chaff from wheat? It’s a purifying, harsh process. Is the Christ who purifies his Church now at work? Yes—and I would say, as a good Thomist, he is at work through secondary causes: for example, the indignation of the Catholic people, the anger of the laity, the anger of priests and bishops at their brothers who have done these terrible things, this investigation team that I hope gets formed, etc. Christ, with his winnowing fan and working through instrumental secondary causes, does his work of purifying the Church. So engage with him. The Christian life is not an abstract philosophy. It’s a friendship with Jesus, a relationship with him. How is Christ alive in his Church today? Precisely in this cleansing mode.

He also says, in regard to himself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What’s repugnant to the truth is repugnant to him. What is congruent with the truth is congruent with him. The closer we get to the truth of things, the more we’re cooperating with the Lord who operates in his Church.

I’ll say maybe a last thing about spiritual warfare. I just spoke to 300 priests at our inaugural Word on Fire National Conference for Priests. On the Feast Day of the Queenship of Mary, I talked about why it’s not a twee, sentimental feast. On the contrary, Mary the Queen is associated with Christ the King. And in the Israelite tradition, the king and his queen mother are warrior figures. They do battle with the enemies of Israel. And so now Christ and Mary, his queen mother, are warriors in the great spiritual struggle.

Does anyone doubt that the demonic power has been at work in this terrible time? I think you’d be naïve in the extreme to deny it. What’s our job? Get in the army. Get in the army of Christ the King and Mary the Queen Mother, and fight with them for the purification of our Church: through prayer and penance, through abstinence and fasting, through raising of one’s voice and calling of the bishops—whatever means you want to use, cooperate with Christ the King in his cleansing and purifying work. That’s the spiritual call of our time.


QUESTION: Any final words about the whole sexual abuse crisis?

BISHOP BARRON: I’d say this: there are so many different angles on this thing, and so many things we can look at, and people have been doing that over the past many years. But I would want to bring into clear and very sharp focus that we’re talking about the victims of these terrible crimes. We’re talking about young people who were sexually assaulted, who were raped. And we should keep that crime first and foremost in mind. That we’re fighting in this thing is true, but we’re fighting on their behalf. We should look at institutional issues and all that, of course. But finally, it’s about these people who were terribly, terribly victimized. We’re here to advocate for them.

We can’t be silent. We can’t duck the question. We can’t play games. And the reason is that these victims of violent sexual assault need to be addressed and reached out to. Pope Francis says the Church is a field hospital. Well, some of the people who are most wounded right now in the life of the Church are those who are victimized by priests and by bishops. So that should be the focus of our attention.