NCR Reprints Letter from Victims’ Group

Religious media – especially Catholic media – support religious institutions. While Catholic media dutifully covered the decades-long child abuse scandal, most explicitly or implicitly supported the Church’s endless stream of excuses. While they occasionally reported the testimony of victims, victims’ groups like SNAP got virtually no coverage relative to official Church spokesmen. National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recently took the highly unusual step of reprinting a letter from Terence McKiernan, president of, to Cardinal Cupich, Pope Francis’ point-man for his upcoming summit on child abuse in Rome. The comparison with recent letters from Pope Francis and other Vatican officials is telling.

First, Mr. McKiernan provides some useful information about Pope Francis’ personal pastor, Father Raniero Cantalamessa. Pope Francis sent him to head up the current prayer meeting of the U.S. bishops on the abuse crisis. It turns out that Father Cantalamessa has a track record on the abuse problem: He compared critics of the Church’s handling of child abuse to “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” That is, Pope Francis’ chosen prayer leader claims that only a demagogue would criticize priests who rape children and their superiors who cover up their crimes.

Mr. McKiernan goes on to describe Church politics on the abuse crisis, and the fact that large blocks of its hierarchy oppose taking concrete measures. He tells Cardinal Cupich, “You've spoken of ‘a change of culture,’ of responsiveness, accountability, and transparency. But the sad fact is that transparency always seems to be forced on the Catholic church.” McKiernan provides a number of examples to reinforce his point.

Specific Recommendations

The rest of the letter concerns recommendations for the Pope’s upcoming summit. Mr. McKiernan takes a measured approach which would probably have the support of most Catholic laymen. His manners are also far better than those of Father Cantalamessa.

He first calls on Pope Francis to reform his special commission on child abuse. Virtually everyone would agree that the papal commission has been ineffective and needs to be changed. He calls on the pope to “rename survivors to it, meet with them regularly, make them the radical body the church needs, not a disrespected joke.” Shockingly, we have recently learned that Pope Francis never met with his commission. Asking the pope to get involved is hardly radical. While Pope Francis has made a special point of excluding victims/survivors, he should acknowledge his mistake and move forward. I am sure his flock would approve. Calling the current commission ‘a disrespected joke’ is a tad harsh- but defensible. I have never seen a Catholic paper ask laymen what they think about the commission and its accomplishments. I suspect many would share McKiernan’s opinion.

Mr. McKiernan’s next recommendations are controversial: “[The Pope] must open the CDF archives, publish the names and vota of every laicized and prayer and penance priest worldwide, including information on the bishops and order superiors who criminally mishandled those cases.” Publishing information about priests who have already been found guilty and laicized seems like a very minimal request. It is shocking that after all these years the Vatican still insists on withholding such data, especially given Pope Francis’ frequent call for transparency.

Finally, Mr. McKiernan issues a call for bishop accountability. While he makes some suggestions regarding personnel, he provides no suggestions about how accountability should be defined or enforced. Any such suggestions would certainly be controversial. But clearly bishops must somehow be made accountable for their handling of abusive priests. Pope Francis’ recent prayer that abusive priests simply turn themselves in to the authorities is a non-starter. Imagine substituting such a prayer for criminal law in general. McKiernan also discusses other problems with the status quo.


Pope Francis has avoided all concrete measures, preferring to rely on prayer and the hope for a new salvific mindset. His right-hand man, Cardinal Pietro Parolin (Vatican’s #2 on Child Abuse) recently declared that solving the abuse problem was an impossible task; he too made no concrete proposals. Furthermore, Cardinal Parolin believes the Church has made commendable progress, and angrily condemns those who complain. In other words, the Vatican - including Pope Francis’ special commission on child abuse - only offers prayers and platitudes. It lacks any action plan. While it is conceivable that this situation might change at the upcoming summit, it is unlikely.

Mr. McKiernan is the leader of a victims’ group. He is hardly a bomb-thrower, and shows due (possibly excessive) respect for the Church and its leaders. His proposals are conservative and even restrained. Most are straightforward and readily implemented. It is inconceivable that the Church is unaware of them. Surveys suggest the laity support them. Yet it is unlikely that the Church will adopt them unless forced to by legal authorities.

In other words, there are straightforward ways to address the child abuse problem which would almost certainly do a great deal of good. Mr. McKiernan and others have previously identified them. The laity would support them. But the Church refuses to adopt them and instead calls for a miracle. This is untenable. Pope Francis bought nearly five years with his do-nothing commission. How much time will his summit buy him?


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