KEVIN LEININGER: Church should put God’s rules first as struggles to heal itself — and its victims

What did Pope Francis, left, know about Theodore McCarrick, and when? (AP photo)
Kevin Leininger

In Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark, Christ condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by telling them: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

How prophetic: By the time I got home from church it was being reported that that the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, D.C., had called on Pope Francis to resign because of his alleged cover up of sexual misconduct allegations against former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano said conscience drove him to write the 11-page statement claiming Francis knew about sanctions imposed on McCarrick by previous Pope Benedict XVI but chose to repeal them before making McCarrick “his trusted advisor.”

“The corruption has reached the very top of the church’s hierarchy,” Vigano warned.

Accusations are not proof, of course, and Francis — bizarrely — promised he “will not say a single word on this,” at least for now. But the fact that McCarrick last month became the first cardinal in history to resign in the wake of allegations he had abused seminarians and minors, together with the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report of abuse by 301 priests and lay leaders against more than 1,000 victims paint a profoundly troubling portrait of a church hierarchy that cares too much about its own rules and traditions and far too little about its duty to Scripture and the well-being of its flock.

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That’s not just my opinion. As the late Bishop John D’Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese told me in 1983 after acknowledging 17 priests had apparently abused 33 people since 1950, most of them minors, the church’s canon law had sometimes made it difficult to deal with allegedly abusive priests because its emphasis often was on the church workers’ rights and forgiveness. “I wanted to get them away from children,” said D’Arcy, who before coming to Indiana in 1985 had expressed concerns about abuse in Boston and had called for tougher standards for admission to the priesthood, including the exclusion of homosexuals.

D’Arcy’s successor, Kevin Rhoades, was formerly bishop in Harrisburg, Pa., and in a statement to the Pittsburgh grand jury made it clear canon law influenced his handling of two abuse cases that were pending when he took office there in 2004. Rhoades said he punished both men and informed church and law-enforcement authorities in both cases, but also expressed a concern about “scandal” to the church. Rhoades acknowledged that such a concern could be misconstrued as an attempt to bury bad news but noted that, under canon law, “one of the key purposes of imposing ecclesiastical penalties is ‘repair of scandal.’ ”

Despite his valiant anti-abuse work in Boston, D’arcy told me in 2002 he did not go to the secular authorities because “my duty was to tell my superiors.” And when I contacted him the following year about a San Diego woman’s claim she had been sexually abused by a Fort Wayne priest in 1969 when she was 11 years old, church rules impeded his office from investigating fully. The priest had been ordained and placed at his church by a religious order, not the diocese, and although D’Arcy’s office did investigate events that allegedly happened within its jurisdiction it could not review at least three such claims from outside the diocese. Nor, D’Arcy said, could he contact the priest directly.

He did, however, write her of his “sorrow and regret for the terrible pain which she described as having experienced.”

“What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Sen. Howard Baker famously asked during the Watergate hearings. The same question must now be asked not only about this pope but his predecessors and all church leaders. As a Lutheran I’m hardly an expert on Catholic governance or canon law, and as an institution of human beings there is and always will be sin within the church. Due process is important, but if the church’s bureaucracy and traditions are being used to endanger the innocent by concealing harmful sins and crimes rather than to prevent abuse by exposing and punishing the guilty, they must either be changed or, as in Vigano’s case, ignored.

Rhoades told reporters earlier this month the diocese will release the names of priests who have been credibly accused of abuse — a report that will presumably build upon the report D’Arcy issued so long ago. It’s even more important to prevent such abuse in the future. Both efforts will be well served if the diocese keeps Christ’s words, and priorities, in mind.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at or call him at 461-8355.