One of the greatest sex abuse scandals in recent memory had nothing to do with the Catholic Church.

It concerned a doctor named Lawrence G. Nassar. Nassar abused hundreds of children, female gymnasts, in his role as team doctor. His superiors ignored complaints, and the U.S.A Gymnastics organization, Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympic Committee did as well. 

When the scandal finally broke, thanks to the reporting of The Indianapolis Star in 2016, the voices of female gymnasts who had suffered at the hands of Nassar were finally heard.  He was tried, convicted, and sentenced in 2018.

What happened after his arrest, however, may explain in part the anger that persists among many Catholics today over their bishops’ (and Rome’s) handling of sexual abuse cases. 

While it took far too long for him to be found out, when Nassar was arrested it set in motion a much wider investigation that punished many who were believed to have known, or should have known, what was happening or who bore ultimate responsibility.

The body count of officials who resigned, were fired, or even prosecuted as a result of the Nassar scandal so far includes:

  • The president and chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics
  • The woman who replaced the president
  • The woman who replaced her as interim president
  • The chairman, vice chairman, treasurer and all of the members of the U.S.A. Gymnastics board
  • The women’s national team coordinator
  • A senior vice president at U.S.A. Gymnastics
  • A longtime coach
  • The chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee
  • A former trainer at the Karolyi Ranch where the athletes trained
  • A former coach for the women’s Olympics gymnastics team
  • The president of Michigan State University, where Nassar was based
  • The university’s athletic director
  • A former university gymnastics coach
  • The former dean of the university’s osteopathic medical school.

In all the many waves of scandal that we have recently been subjected to that have nothing to do with the Church, for example #Metoo and Hollywood, there is a certain script for how the scandals unfold. There are the accusations, the denials, and the further accusations. But inevitably, people are held accountable, and heads roll. 

There may be resignations, bankruptcies, and lawsuits too. In this kabuki drama, however, we are assured of one thing: heads roll. We may not do it with the self-immolating flair of a Japanese business or political leader who dispatches himself from his job in ritualistic disgrace, but heads roll.

Not in the Church, however. 

And this is where a mighty disconnect comes in. Almost inevitably, an accused perpetrator is forced out of ministry, occasionally “reduced to the lay state” (a rather demeaning phrase, especially in this context), and even more occasionally arrested. 

But those who knew, or should have known, supervised him, ordained him, heard the rumors, sent him off for “treatment” and then passed him along to another parish — their heads very, very rarely roll. 

Bishops are understood to be successors of the apostles. Theirs is an ordained office, and they are ultimately subject to the authority of the pope. This status may be theologically defensible, but the impression past practice conveys is that no one is ultimately held responsible. 

One might think of Cardinal Bernard Law, who was driven out of Boston, but wound up with a comfortable position in Rome. Or more recently, despite all the questions raised about who knew of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s predilections and when, nothing has happened. Truthfully, not even now-Archbishop McCarrick’s head has really rolled. 

In a recent joint investigation by the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer, much is made of the fact that even disgraced bishops end up in rather well-cushioned retirement. 

The front page of the Nov. 4 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Inquirer and Boston Globe newspapers teamed up for an article published in both daily papers Nov. 4 that examined ways it said the U.S. bishops have failed to police themselves even since their 2002 gathering in Dallas about clergy sex abuse when they "promised that the church's days of concealment and inaction were over." (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE)

This is not true of every bishop, of course. I knew one who resigned in disgrace and disappeared to a monastery. He took up a life of true prayer and penance. He did the monks’ laundry, and took care of those who were sick. It may not have been jail, but it was a challenging, ascetic life, and it was where he died.

Most Catholics, however, don’t see this, and also don’t see this as the norm. Instead of public penance, they see no investigation, no transparency, and no accountability.

This massive disconnect between the way the Church approaches modern scandal and the expectations of the people it serves results in a frustration that in turn leads to petitions, boycotts, and the withholding of donations.

Bishops may not like to talk of heads rolling, but they have publicly committed themselves to finding ways to hold each other accountable. This will take determination, for there will be institutional resistance, and it will take transparency. 

Yet nothing less than a profound effort at accountability will restore the trust of both clergy and laity in the leadership and witness of their shepherds.

Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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