A Prelate In The Dock

Why the faithful can take solace in the indictment of a Catholic Bishop

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An Archbishop of Canterbury once remarked that it is a mistake to think that God is chiefly, or even mainly, concerned with religion. There is some hope at the moment that perhaps the Roman Catholic Church in the United States may learn to appreciate that God may be more interested in the safety of his people than the protection of his abusive priests. For too long the Catholic hierarchy has seemed to value the reputation of the Church over the well-being of the church, a word derived from the Greek meaning “gathering” or “assembly.” Put another way, the people of God precede the institution of religious authority, order, and institutions.

Not that you would know that from the way the Catholic Church has broadly dealt with the past decade or so of revelations about how the hierarchy — men who draw their authority and their mission from the apostles of Jesus—has chosen secrecy and silence when confronted with allegations of the abuse of innocents.

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Now, at last, there is news that suggests at least one bishop of the church will face a reckoning with responsibility. The Roman Catholic bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, Robert W. Finn, has been indicted for failing to report suspected child abuse after allowing five months to elapse before informing authorities that child pornography had been discovered on the laptop of a priest with access to children. Finn has thus become the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official to be held criminally liable for appearing to protect his priests. The mills of the gods grind slow, it has been said, but they grind exceedingly fine, and that appears to be the case here.

This is not a reflexive anti-Catholic reaction to news of the indictment. Far from it: Like just about everybody I know, I dislike being second-guessed, and I believe virtually every situation about which we read is more complicated than reports or columns make it appear. The speed with which anyone can weigh in on anything has only exacerbated a cultural problem of constant, largely unconstructive criticism. Journalism has ever less to do with the discovery of fact or the exploration of nuance, for the former requires money and the latter requires wisdom, or at least an appreciation of complexity, all of which are elusive. Life would be much easier if right and wrong were always in stark contrast — if good and evil were truly like light and dark, easily and immediately discernible and distinctive. So much unfolds in between, in the twilight.

But there is nothing mysterious or oblique or nuanced about a priest in the first decades of the 21st century who lives next to a school and is found to have taken pornographic images of children. Nothing. If responsibility and accountability mean anything — if the words of scripture and tradition that call the faithful to imitate the sacrifices of Jesus mean anything at all — then the officials in authority over such a priest have no excuse for failing to take sure and certain action.

“Put not thy trust in princes,” the Psalmist warns. Nor, history tells us, in prelates or pastors who value the Church above all — even the creatures of God who have so long put their trust in them.