Statements by Pope Francis and American bishops reacting to the Church’s sex abuse scandal suggest they are serious about getting to the roots of what happened and doing something meaningful about it.  That includes the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick as well as 1,000 old, but for the most part previously unreported, abuse cases in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

The expressions of concern by Church leaders are welcome. But talk is one thing, action another. And action is what this spiraling crisis now requires.

A lot attention focuses on the possibility of an “apostolic visitation” — a form of Church investigation — as proposed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference.

But whether it takes that form or some other, an in-depth investigation is needed, now more than ever, in light of the claim by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, that top people in the Vatican knew of the complaints about ex-Cardinal McCarrick as early as 2000, and he personally told Pope Francis five years ago. Yet McCarrick continued as an influential advisor of the Pope until last June, when the New York archdiocese said it had found credible a complaint that he groped an altar boy nearly half a century ago.

These charges are part of a lengthy document by Archbishop Vigano containing enough derogatory allegations about top-level Church figures in the United States and Rome to keep investigators busy a long time.

And leaving the Vigano allegations aside, any serious investigation must examine the charge by Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis. that a “homosexual subculture within the hierarchy” is the source of many of the problems now vexing the Church.

In tackling these sensitive matters, the investigation must refrain from scapegoating or profiling gays. But it also needs to steer clear of the head-in-the-sand political correctness, already emanating from some sources, that would deny the very possibility of a serious gay problem.

Several specific conditions must be met in structuring the investigation. 

One is that laity be involved at every stage and in all aspects of its planning and execution. When Cardinal DiNardo speaks of the “expertise” of lay people in “investigation, law enforcement, psychology and other relevant disciplines,” his point is well taken. If, however, this means involving lay people only as expert consultants and no more, that won’t wash. Lay people should be full members of the investigating body itself.

This shouldn’t be a project of, by, and for bishops. The whole Church has been hurt by what has happened in recent weeks, and the whole Church should have a say in what is done to set things right. That requires a fundamental reorientation of the bishops’ customary way of thinking — a shift from seeing the laity as “our people” to accepting them as “our partners.” If bishops are hesitant to partner with the laity in an undertaking of utmost importance to the welfare of the Church, they need to put aside their hesitation and make the great leap.

It hardly needs saying that transparency and accountability should be integral elements of this exercise in truth-telling. Old habits of self-serving secrecy in the conduct of Church affairs are part of the explanation of how we got into the present mess, and more secrecy now would simply not be acceptable. Self-serving secrecy is always an obstacle to the truthfulness and accountability essential to building and sustaining community in the Church. 

And above all, in this time of scandal and crisis, we need the truth.

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