The resignation of Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, last week is a watershed moment in the history of the Catholic Church: the first time that a bishop was directly forced to resign for poorly handling a case of priestly child abuse. Finn was sentenced for maintaining in ministry and failing to report a priest on whose computer a piece of child pornography was found.
Let’s acknowledge this first: Since the Catholic sex abuse crisis first came to light 15 years ago, the Church has taken enormous steps to remedy the problem, especially under the too-little-noticed but vigorous guidance of Pope Benedict XVI—including extremely tough accountability rules for priests. And indeed sex abuse cases have dropped precipitously.
But the true underlying problem, and the reason why the sex abuse scandal was such a crisis for the Church, was never with the priests. It was always with the bishops. All religious denominations suffer from sex abuse problems simply because predators look for positions where they have access to children, and Catholics are no worse off than anybody else.
No, the real problem was always the bishops. What made the Catholic sex abuse scandal so horrific wasn’t that priests abused children; it’s that bishops looked the other way while they were doing it.
Accountability has always been a problem in the Catholic Church. Part of it is the Church’s monarchical structure—the bishop as sole leader of the diocese, the Pope as sole earthly leader of the Church—parts of which Catholics believe to be divinely ordained and therefore unchangeable. Whatever other benefits this may have, it certainly doesn’t help foster accountability.
Part of it is the Latin culture of many precincts of the Church—most especially and infamously the Roman Curia—which historically is inimical to transparency and accountability (as a Frenchman, I know whereof I speak).
Part of it is simply the fact that the Church is an enormous old institution and that institutions like this can very easily become bureaucratized, sclerotic, and self-regarding.
But the point is that while the Church has taken great strides, it had never up until now taken the most important one: holding even bishops accountable.
Under Pope Francis, clearly, that is changing. He has been a much tougher reformer of the Curia than a pessimist like me anticipated, not afraid to make enemies. The fact that he compelled the resignation of the German “bling bishop” who drew opprobrium by spending millions on a palace renovation gave me hope he would not be afraid to hold bishops accountable for more serious misdeeds. And finally, both his “G8” group of cardinals that advises him and the committee he appointed to deal with sex abuse were all staffed with highly respected people. All those seeds bore fruit: After a Vatican investigation, Bishop Finn was indeed held accountable.
Bishop Finn has his defenders. They say he’s a good man who was misled by bad advice and murky circumstances into making a serious mistake, who doesn’t deserve to be scapegoated for the much worse and unpunished failings of other bishops. And they may well be right—but that is exactly the point. That is how accountability works. The way it works is that the buck stops with the man at the top, period, because the only alternative is endless buck-passing. And if Bishop Finn is as good a man as his supporters say, he understands and accepts that; and if he is a Christian man, he understands that God’s love and grace do not depend on whatever happens to his ecclesiastical career.
That is the thing that accountability-shy structures always fail to grasp—and perhaps that is the thing my beloved Church is starting to understand.