Holding Bishops Accountable for Clergy Misconduct

This is the 2nd blog in this series dealing with the effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman as reported in the NY TIMES on 14 October 2011, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse.  The previous blog is State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds.

Many church denominations already have acknowledged that sexually misbehaving clergy often have troubles in many areas of their lives – their marriages, their credit, frequent moves, relational troubles with parishioners, bad driving records, etc.    There are warning signs which the courts are going to start demanding churches pay attention to in the lives of their clergy.   [Some denominational officials say they have in fact come to recognize that sexually misbehaving clergy frequently have credit problems – they run up huge porn bills on their computers, they have expensive sexual dalliances with prostitutes or have to pay off people to keep them silent or are being black mailed.   If the state comes to recognize these as legitimate warning signs of future sexual misconduct, the church is going to have to pay attention to these things in its clergy.]

There is a certain level at which the church might want to pay attention to these things anyhow – does the church not have an interest in its clergy behaving morally, above reproach and scandal, in a holy manner?   Should the church passively ignore these areas of behavior even if the state doesn’t demand it of us?

For bishops there is another issue – not only can the bishops be held responsible for the misdeeds of their clergy whom they supervise, but also these clergy are ordained by the bishops, so the bishops share some responsibility for putting these men into pastoral office in the first place.  So not only must the bishops practice vigilance regarding following Policy Standard and Procedures (PSP) regarding the behavior of clergy, but more diligence is needed by the bishops in knowing the men they choose to ordain.  If there are warning signs of problems, these should not be ignored by the bishops or they will have to give account for whom they ordained.

Going back to the NY Times article.  Three things really stuck out in my mind:

1)   “Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.”

Though the bishop did turn over the photos to the police, the bishop waited 5 months to do so.   Not only following the law, but doing so ASAP is critical.  Church officials are often slow to react to allegations, sometimes because the accused is a friend or well known and they find it hard to believe that their acquaintance could do such a thing.  This is where having a clear PSP demanding the investigation of all allegations, regardless of who the accuser or the alleged perpetrator is, is so essential.

2)  “But until May the priest attended children’s parties, spent weekends in the homes of parish families, hosted an Easter egg hunt and presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a girl’s First Communion, according to interviews with parishioners and a civil lawsuit filed by a victim’s family.”

When the church hierarchy tries to suppress knowledge of the allegations, it puts other people at risk for being hurt.  Of course the church has to have clear PSPs in how to deal publicly with those accused of misconduct, but it also must be willing to follow and enforce those PSPs and not allow exceptions no matter who the accused is or what his rank is.

3)   That report found that the diocese did not follow its own procedures. It also found that Bishop Finn was “too willing to trust” Father Ratigan.”

Exactly what I mentioned in point 1) above.  Hierarchy tends to trust its clergy against their parishioners.   Many clergy rely on this for helping them deal with parish problems.  Some clergy do foolish and damaging things and then expect the bishop to cover their backs.   But clear PSPs can help the bishops make better pastoral decisions, if they themselves are enforcing the PSPs and ensuring compliance with the rules by their clergy, by diocesan staff, and by themselves.

Next:  In the Church, Not of the Church?

7 thoughts on “Holding Bishops Accountable for Clergy Misconduct

  1. Pingback: State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. This was a great line — “Hierarchy tends to trust its clergy against their parishioners.” I have seen this time and again. It seems in some cases, some bishops see their true flock (those who they primarily care for) as the clergy, with the laity being this ‘other group’ out there. It seems to me that one root cause is a false ecclesiology on part of the bishops, one where they make the clergy fundamentally a group apart with special privileges and rights, different, elevated above, and more important than the laity. This is fed in part by recent trends (post-Turkish influence I believe) to give crowns and thrones to Bishops, and in the case of many Greek bishops, shuttling them around in Limos. Unsurprisingly, if we treat Bishops like royalty, accountable to no one save themselves, then they start to act like it. The Bishops become a royal family, with clergy a circle of lesser nobles, and the laity treated as lowly peasants. It’s a caste system quite different in feel from the simple, humble, often impoverished leaders of the early church.

    I believe a return to the simply ornamentation of the early centuries (no crowns or throwns) would be one step in the right direction.

  3. Marc Trolinger

    I agree with you 100% Stan. The imperial trappings and titles can lead to delusional behavior for some of those in the episcopacy who have not developed a truly humble heart. I see no possitive reason to retain these traditions which are neither holy, nor apostolic. I believe that the elimination of these imperial trappings and titles would actually enhance the pastoral ministry of our bishops.

    Some years ago, as the problems of accountability and responsibility of Church leaders in the OCA became known to many in the Church, I had an idea about collective accountability. With the communication technology available to us in this day and age, have annual confidential evaluations of the performance of presbyters and deacons by parish members made available to their bishops and diocesan councils. Then have presbyters and deacons provide annual confidential performance evaluations of their bishops to the other sitting members of the Holy Synod. Perhaps something like this would identify problems earlier, and lead to corrective action before extensive damage can take place.

  4. Pingback: In the Church, Not of the Church? | Fr. Ted's Blog

  5. Mark from the DOS

    Fr. Ted:

    You write that there is an “effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman.” Let us be clear. The state will never criminally prosecute somebody for failing to follow church policy. The failure here is to report child abuse as required by state statute, not church policy. The may be contemporaneous failures to follow church policy, and those failures may well also violate state law. However, the prosecution has only to do with the state law. We would not want to leave an impression that failing to follow a church policy is criminal unto itself, unless of course, we intended to mislead.

  6. <>

    Wow. I certainly did not get this impression from Fr. Ted’s post. “Intending to mislead” is a pretty strong statement. Rather, I believe what Fr. Ted’s article is pointing to is the growing interest of the state in protecting children, and the potential of charges of child endangerment (mentioned as a possible charge in the NY Times article cited) to include failing to take basic measures to screen and monitor and report clergy, which would certainly include PSPs. But none of the (in my opinion) unfounded concern over confusion about this article should detract from this very excellent series. Fr. Ted is writing courageously about the very real and present crisis within the Orthodox church regarding the mishandling of clergy sex abuse claims. More clergy should be speaking truthfully about this topic as Fr. Ted does.

    Mark from the DOS — I see your many overreaching statements you’ve made here:

    On that site you wrote about Fr. Ted’s articles about clergy abuse and child safety: “Let us stand together against these blatant deceptions, falsehoods and misrepresentations. That a member of the clergy would so wantonly engage in these sorts of lies and fear-mongering sickens me. Lord, save they people (even, apparently from the clergy) and bless thine inheritance!”

    “Blatant deceptions…falsehoods…misrepresentations…lies…fear-mongering…”

    I’m very sad that you would make so many overreaching statements while ignoring the truth of Fr. Ted’s writing about the very real crisis of mishandling of clergy abuse charges and failing to protect children.

    Speaking of issues of honesty though, ‘Mark from the DOS’, would you care to share you last name and what church you attend? I’m Stan Shinn. I attend Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas, TX. Perhaps you attend St. Seraphim’s Cathedral? Have we met?

  7. Pingback: Blogs on Sexual Misconduct in the Church | Fr. Ted's Blog

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