Bishops must be locally accountable

(Published first in The Catholic Register,, September 2, 2018)

By Glen Argan

The Roman Catholic Church today has nearly 3,000 dioceses and archdioceses, each with at least one bishop.

The first letter to Timothy in the New Testament describes the character of a bishop in these words: “A bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent, but gentle, not quarrelsome and not a lover of money” (3.2). A bishop, in short, must be a person of high moral standing.

In the wake of the latest in what seems to be a never-ending torrent of revelations of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal coverups, Pope Francis and some bishops have issued statements apologizing for the abuse and asserting the need for greater accountability.

But what is this greater accountability? Not only thousands of priests, but significant numbers of bishops and cardinals have fallen far short of the high moral standard expected of them. Yet, the bishops of those 3,000 dioceses are all accountable to one man – the pope. The pope and his staff, acting without ongoing input from the lay faithful of the dioceses, cannot seriously be expected to ensure that more than 3,000 bishops are “beyond reproach.”

Yet, nothing in the recent spate of official statements indicates an intention to change the nature of accountability.

Sadly, Rome itself has been part of the problem in responding to this massive scandal. Moreover, as time goes by, more and more dirt from the past is exposed.

To be sure, large numbers of bishops are now determined to prevent future abuse. But greater vigilance does not mean greater accountability. Will accountability structures change or are the recent statements hollow words? If the latter, when another type of scandal emerges in say, 50 or 100 years, will the Church’s reaction be different than during the abuse crisis? Or, will the faithful of that future day be subjected to another dreary round of coverups, secrecy and blaming the media that has been the standard response over the past three decades?

As well, the author of First Timothy places great stock in the local bishop being “married only once.” That is the only qualification for a bishop upon which he elaborates: The bishop “must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way – for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?” (3.3-4)

At least in the eyes of the biblical author, being a good parent and husband is both a training ground for and an indicator of who is capable of Church leadership.

The Church’s rule of clerical celibacy has held firm through the sexual abuse crisis. One frequent defence of the rule has been that sexual abuse is even more common among married men than among celibate clergy. Yes, but. We expect that clergy will be more morally upright than the common run of humanity. As well, clergy undergo a lengthy screening and formation process designed, among other things, to ensure they are beyond reproach.

Was St. Paul, or whoever wrote First Timothy, correct in asserting that bishops should be married? Can some trusted external body do an objective study of whether celibacy is part of the web of causes that ruined the lives and mental health of large numbers of vulnerable lay Catholics?

Meanwhile, married or not, perhaps the bishop has been invested with too much power. His primary role is as the diocese’s chief teacher of the faith. But being an excellent guardian of the faith does not equate to being a competent manager of human resources or of a multi-million-dollar institution. Bishops of large dioceses typically hire competent people to perform those tasks. Even so, those employees are accountable to the bishop, not to the communion of the faithful.

Should not the bishop be accountable to that local Church? Should not the laity of the diocese have a significant and public role in choosing their bishop? Should not diocesan pastoral councils and parish pastoral councils have teeth? Should not bishops and pastors be accountable to those councils for how they run their dioceses and parishes?

Accountability and transparency are needed locally. Local Catholics have been the prime victims in the massive sexual abuse crisis. They should be the ones entrusted with the task of overseeing the local bishop and being the watchdogs over all abuse, injustice and pastoral planning in their local Church.

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