Thursday, February 21, 2013


A surely unwelcome thing happened to New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan while preparing to depart for Rome where he and 116 colleagues will crown a new pope.  He was deposed by lawyers representing victims of priestly sexual abuse in Milwaukee where he had previously served as archbishop.  The story here is now all too familiar, one that has played out across the country and indeed around the world.  As the deposing attorney Jeff Anderson put it, “The deposition of Cardinal Dolan is necessary to show that there’s been a longstanding pattern and practice to keep secrets and keep the survivors from knowing that there had been a fraud committed”.  Also being deposed before his departure in a separate case is Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. 

These depositions represent different cases and there is reason to believe (based on files recently made public) that Mahony may have much more for which to answer than Dolan.  Indeed there are demands for him to abstain from participating in the papal conclave altogether.  And of course not only these two prelates, but Pope Benedict himself have been under somewhat of a cloud regarding both the abuses themselves and the Church's unmistakably systematic cover up aimed to protecting its reputation.  However unwelcome the timing of these depositions may be, they are a sharp reminder of why, despite a billion plus membership, a new pope will face huge challenges.  In Dolan's case, the deposition may also put an end to any hopes he might have had in succeeding to the papacy, though that probably was highly unlikely from the start.

Priests and other clergy often portray their ministry as having been initiated by God — they were "called".  That's a pretty substantial claim, regardless of the circumstances.  But when you see a significant number of "called" clergy (across religions) committing criminal or immoral acts, it shouldn't be unexpected that people's faith in things religious are undermined.  How could God call such people into service?  Think of how the parishioners of Msgr. Kevin Wallin a charismatic priest who, among other things, turned out to be both a drug user and dealer must feel not only about him but also about their faith.  Why do you think worship attendance is down these days?

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
In a poignant Les Miserables lyric, Marius, looking out at an old haunt, observes:
Empty chairs at empty tables 
Where my friends will meet no more
That's exactly what many of the still faithful must be feeling as they look around at the empty pews where their friends and often family just don't meet any more.  In so many cases, and certainly for the Church that will shortly elect a new leader, this is largely the result of a self-inflicted wound.  When we see leaders who invoke their "call" and ask their congregation's trust behaving poorly, our doubts are magnified.  And that is particularly problematic for religion because doubt can be its worst enemy.  The Cardinals will gather with pomp and circumstance in the weeks ahead, but they will do so under a cloud of doubt.  Each and everyone of them will be figuratively deposed as many of the onlookers silently ask the classic question, "what did you know and when did you know it?"  

Benedict and John Paul stacked the deck with a group of conservative cardinals insuring, they hoped, continuity.  Their particular take on Catholicism and religion is likely to prevail for some time to come.  But they have also locked in a group of leaders many of whom have played some role in the priestly abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up that has challenged the institution's credibility.  Where an insular buddy hierarchy is at play, one that has neither checks and balances nor membership accountability, it is very hard, if not impossible, to clean house.  And clean house is probably what is needed.  Having two of its highly visible American Cardinals being deposed on the eve of the vote is bad enough, but it merely a symbol, not the root, of the problem.  Symbolism, the new pope will find, is the least of it.

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