In Letter to Flock after Bishops' Conference, Missouri Bishop Slams 'Cowards' and 'Insular' Hierarchy

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., speaks at a news conference Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. McKnight released a complete list of the names of 33 priests or religious brothers in the Jefferson City diocese have been "credibly accused" and/or removed from the ministry over sexual abuse of minor. This follows an internal investigation that began in February 2018. (AP Photo/Summer Ballentine)

In a letter to his flock following the dismal November General Assembly of Bishops in Baltimore, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, expressed deep disappointment and frustration with the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), while calling out the “cowards” and decrying what he called “episcopal arrogance” and an “insular” hierarchy.

The bishops at their biennial gathering were expected to (1) show the world that they were taking the Church’s sexual abuse scandal seriously and (2) take concrete steps to ensure that nothing like the alleged crimes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick happen again. By all accounts, they failed.

McKnight began his letter by lamenting the Holy See’s directive that no action be taken on any proposals to deal with the crisis.

“My frustration, shared with many other people, is this: We have known about the scandal of Archbishop McCarrick since the end of June, and our Church must take immediate, decisive and substantive action in light of the deep wound the scandal has caused,” McKnight wrote.

The bishop said he wasn’t as concerned about McCarrick’s delayed punishment as a complete canonical process takes time.  And after being forced to resign from the College of Cardinals, “McCarrick isn’t going anywhere and he is already living a life of imposed prayer and penance,” McKnight said.  Then he got to the heart of the matter.

“How could his rise to such an influential position in the Church have happened?” he wrote.  “I am concerned how the national conference of bishops and the Holy See answer that question.”

McKnight had previously expressed hope that the USCCB at the November General Assembly would handle the scandal in a transparent and effective manner.

“It is almost unbearable. How could a brother bishop disrespect with such callousness the dignity of young boys, seminarians and priests over decades and no one called him on the carpet?” he wrote in the Catholic Missourian on August 6. “It is inexplicable to me. This cannot continue, and I hope with God’s grace there will be a change of culture among the clergy.”

The bishop warned that “an internal investigation” of the scandal “without the use of competent and qualified lay investigators will hardly be considered transparent and credible.”

Then he unloaded on fellow prelates who helped cover up McCarrick’s heinous crimes.

At the time of this writing, there has not been one bishop, archbishop or cardinal in either the Holy See or the United States who has come forward on his own to repent publicly of his sins of omission or commission with regard to Archbishop McCarrick’s series of promotions over decades.  Please, be men, not cowards, and come clean on your own! There doesn’t have to be a formal and long, drawn out investigation for a bishop to exercise a little compunction and concern for the well-being of the whole Church.  An independent and transparent investigation is all the more necessary when culpable hierarchs exhibit an incapacity to do the right thing on their own.

McKnight recommended that the laity be involved with “putting into place protocols and institutional structures to build credibility in the hierarchy’s handling of sexual abuse cases going forward,” as ” history proves that we bishops are not capable of policing ourselves adequately on the issue of clergy sexual abuse.”

The laity are the only ones who can keep the hierarchy accountable and get us out of the mess we bishops got ourselves into.  My singular focus throughout the Baltimore meeting was to advocate and push for greater public involvement of the laity at all levels of the Church.  Why can’t we have well qualified, nationally known and trusted lay experts named to the special task force announced by the president of the USCCB?  We are too insular and closed in as a hierarchy, and so are some of our processes at the USCCB.

“The document the Missouri Province of Bishops presented to the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People on Oct. 6 was intended to offer a set of principles for the USCCB to consider as it was developing proposals for the full body of bishops, including the involvement of the laity,” McKnight said.  “We Missouri bishops wanted something valuable to come from our November meeting.”

And so, I was disappointed that even the mild proposals up for consideration at the Baltimore meeting had to be pulled from a vote.  It was a rather harsh reminder to me of what many lay people have been saying throughout our Diocese: We bishops are ineffectual in our attempts to address the problem of abuse of power by the hierarchy.

Francis allies Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and retired Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington submitted an alternative plan that would send allegations against bishops to be investigated by their metropolitan archbishops, along with archdiocesan review boards.

Wuerl’s tenure as bishop and cardinal came under intense scrutiny over the summer when his name loomed large in the shocking Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing allegations of widespread sexual abuse by more than 300 priests against more than 1,000 children. The cardinal was accused of helping to cover up the crimes of predatory priests while serving as the bishop of Pittsburgh.

It got even worse for Wuerl several weeks later when the former nuncio from the Vatican to the United States, Archbishop Viganò, accused both Cardinal Wuerl and Pope Francis in his bombshell 11-page letter of knowing about former D.C. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick’s history of sexual abuse, and doing nothing about it. Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation on October 11.

Cupich distinguished himself by minimizing the importance of the Viganò’s accusations, saying Pope Francis has a “bigger agenda” and should not get distracted by a “rabbit hole.”

“The pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things, of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the church,” Cupich told NBC Chicago. “We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”

At the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, McKnight pointed out that people are actually dying as a result of the harm caused by predator clergy, and yet “certain retired bishops who were notoriously responsible for covering up clergy sexual abuse” (Cardinal Wuerl) appeared at the “General Assembly in Baltimore as welcome guests.” He called it “a slap in the face to all who have been wounded by the clergy.”

“This example of episcopal arrogance and clericalism evidences the fact that we still don’t get the problem,” he said.

“The whole Church is needed to solve our problem which the whole world knows about.  What more do we have to hide?” he continued.  “If we are going to move forward, we need to have authentic communion and a genuine synodal process.  And this requires transparency and better communication between the clergy and the laity, between the USCCB and its own members, and between the USCCB and the Holy See. We need to become the Church Christ founded us to be.”

McKnight ended his letter on an optimistic note.

“Despite our current lethargy, I believe we are witnessing the rebirth and renewal of our Church in our day,” he said. “And I feel very blessed to be part of that renewal with each of you.  We are better together.”