Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 1: The Theology of Episcopacy


The Pennsylvania priest sex abuse/bishop cover-up scandal screams for justice. Following immediately on the revelations involving Archbishop (formerly Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick, the “what can be done about this terrible reality” leaps to the forefront of current Catholicism. While the focus is on the shocking statistics of what happened, the more substantive questions revolve around why and how this behavior could survive and flourish within the institutional Catholic church and what needs to change to prevent it from happening again.

It is clear that pedophile priests and cover-up bishops do not operate in a vacuum. They are part of the Catholic culture, breathing in a set of values, presumptions, thought patterns, behaviors, expectations, and privileges that form that culture. Everyone everywhere absorbs multiple cultures – ethnic, religious, social, political, and economic communities that shape the way people think, feel, and act. The Catholic culture is one of these communities.

There are factors within this Catholic culture, especially the clerical culture, which make this destructive behavior possible, even predictable. The result is a system that practically guarantees no accountability for anyone who is ordained. Fortunately, there are many bishops and priests who minister with selfless dedication, exceptional talent, genuine faith, and a practiced love. Their ministry reflects the gospel and echoes the best impulses of the Catholic tradition. But even if they feel accountable to the gospel, to themselves, and to the people they serve, they may not be accountable to the institutional Church.

What elements in this Catholic culture contribute to the widespread existence of pedophile priests and cover-up bishops? I will address a number of those factors, one in this entry and other elements in future posts. Calls for reform must deal with all of these elements in order to minimize the damaging presence of pedophile priests and cover-up bishops in the future.

Join in on the discussion by commenting on this, and subsequent, articles.

The Theology of the Episcopacy

The first factor flows from the theology of the episcopacy. Ordination to the episcopacy comes with a gold-plated guarantee of immunity and carte blanche permission to run a diocese however a bishop wants, with extremely rare exceptions. Bishops are free to exercise their ministry without a boss.  Bishops are directly accountable only to the pope. That’s how the theology works out practically. It continues the argument that Peter was the Rock, the first among the apostles, and the pope is his successor as the bishops are the successors of the apostles.

Even if you support that whole line of reasoning, there is one enormous difference between Peter and the apostles, and the pope and the bishops today. The ratio of Peter to the 11 other apostles is 1 to 11. The ratio of the pope to current bishops is 1 to 5200+. In other words, the organizational flow chart for the Catholic church shows over 5200 direct reports to the pope. That ratio guarantees no accountability. As a result, any bishop who wants to can maneuver the system however he wants. He is de facto an ecclesiastical feudal lord.

To a lesser degree, pastors have a similar open-ended, do or don’t do as you please, free to serve or not serve as you see fit, management style.

Where are the checks and balances? An appeals system? Consequences? Nowhere. Bishops do not report to Cardinals. This system, based on this theology, is a fertile Petri dish for rampant unaccountability, the e. coli of our hierarchical system.

Changing our whole system of selection of bishops begins with changing our thinking, our theology. The apostles personally experienced Jesus, his life, teaching, death and resurrection. No one after the apostles and disciples has ever had that personal experience. Bishops as we know the role did not evolve until much later. They are not “successors to the apostles” as we now claim because they did not have the personal experience of Jesus. No one “passes down” their experience to successors. Once we change our thinking on that key point, we are freer to create an episcopacy that has greater built-in accountability than 1 pope to 5200+ bishops.

We need to put in place a sensible system of accountability, with appropriate consequences for those who can’t or won’t comply. There are many examples of large organizations that have better models of accountability than the church has. Learn from them and bury the myth that we are so different because we are a church. Then we will have some more sensible ways to hold bishops accountable, and help prevent future cover-ups of sexual abuse.

Revamping our theology of the episcopacy is just one of the factors that will contribute to changing the Catholic culture enough to help protect children from pedophile priests and cover-up bishops. I will outline other factors in future articles.