Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Abuse scandal and the problems of localism

In this blog post, I will show you Ross Douthat saying why the Catholic abuse scandal is bad news for Red Tories and Front Porchers who prize localism. But first, a word about Maureen Dowd.
Another day, yet another nitwit Dowd column about the Catholic scandal. She’s now reduced to playing the gender card:

I’ve been wondering, given the vitriolic reaction of the New York archbishop to my column defending nuns and the dismissive reaction of the Vatican to my column denouncing the church’s response to the pedophilia scandal, if they are able to take a woman’s voice seriously.


As a (liberal-ish) Catholic friend of mine puts it, “Not hers.” He points out that it’s absurd that Dowd blames sexism for the fact that intelligent Catholics don’t like her “snarling, half-baked analysis.” Ordinary people often don’t realize that in the culture of newsrooms, there’s a high wall between the editorial/op-ed page and the newsroom. The Times newsroom can’t be held responsible for the shallow, utterly unserious observations of Dowd on the church problem, but trust me, that the Times continues to publish them — her last four columns have been about the scandal — is hurting the newspaper’s credibility. I say this as a Times subscriber and as someone who has been sharply critical of the Catholic hierarchy. I expect better that Dowd’s catty, ill-informed trash-talking from the best newspaper in the world.
The Catholic NYT columnist worth listening to on this matter is, of course, Ross Douthat. On his blog today, he has a smart piece explaining why the Vatican’s flailing on scandal management is bad news for localists of all sorts. His argument is that from a managerial point of view. the Catholic crisis demonstrates the problem of localism, insofar as so many bishops, left since forever to deal with the sex abuse problem on their own, kept Rome in the dark. Ross says — and I think he’s right — that the result of this crisis will be a Catholic Church even more centrally administered from Rome, because pontiffs will not be able to trust local ordinaries to handle abuse cases properly.
The Roman example, says Ross, is a tough lesson for proponents of governmental decentralization to learn. Excerpt:


But here’s the question: is real decentralization sustainable, given the centripetal forces of mass culture, mass media and mass politics? Once you’ve established that administration can be centralized, won’t any cascade of local blunders eventually get pinned, whether by the press or the public or the legal system, on some more central authority … which in turn will try to consolidate or re-consolidate its power, on the theory that if you’re going to get the blame, you might as well have the authority as well? And doesn’t this mean that any bold attempt at decentralization will only last until the next crisis — the next Hurricane Katrina, the next financial collapse, the next sex abuse scandal?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But so far, the experience of the Catholic Church doesn’t seem encouraging.


He’s right. Leaving theology aside, the managerial constitution of the Roman church gives the pope full universal authority over the church, but without the effective power (which includes a well-informed, professional and responsible bureaucracy) to exercise it effectively.
Incidentally, Catholic blogger Leon Podles has some thoughts along these lines, saying that modern popes are in an impossible position. It is important that readers understand that Podles excepts dogmatic pronouncements about the office of the papacy; he is making a point about the problems with church governance. Excerpt:

The modern papacy has centralized the administration of the Church. Until recently, the pope appointed only a minority of bishops. Governments had a huge role, and the representative of the Empire had a veto power over papal elections. The selection of bishops was taken out of the hands of the laity (who were often no longer Catholic) and clericalized. But with the centralization came the responsibility to oversee the episcopate, and in this the Vatican has failed. But bishops are unlikely to criticize, much less discipline, their fellow bishops, remembering the proverb about glass houses. So no one is maintaining standards, and the law of entropy sets in, as the Church loses zeal and is reduced to a creaking bureaucratic machine.


Granted, the U.S. federal government is not required to be zealous, Deo gratias, but if the central authority is in faraway Washington, it will be easier for local outposts to lose their zeal for efficiency and competency, causing frustration among those the government is supposed to serve, and building support for decentralization. Until those same people see the decentralized administration of government behaving incompetently, and demand that the central government crack heads and take over the job from failed locals.
You see the problem.

Comments read comments(20)
post a comment
The Mighty Favog

posted April 7, 2010 at 3:14 pm

I agree that MoDo’s pieces are often vacuous and, indeed, have been less than worthless on the present Catholic scandals.
But. . . .
Only the first third of her column today falls into that category. The rest of it, which she turns over to her brother Kevin, is fairly mainstream and commonsensical. Married priests? We already have a few of ’em.
The fact that the scandals are a betrayal worthy of Judas? Well, duh:
And, yes, Maureen Dowd has hurt the Times’ credibility with her catty blather, but this probably wasn’t the column best demonstrating that.

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Ross’ column was excellent and he made many brilliant points. One sticking point is the fact that there’s really nobody to hold priests and perhaps even bishops to account on a local, everyday basis. Certainly not most parishoners!
Local government is a bit different, in that local people run and manage and vote in elections every so often. Officials are often – not always, God knows – given the bum’s rush.

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm

the result of this crisis will be a Catholic Church even more centrally administered from Rome,
No, that’s too much work.
What will happen is more lay oversight of clerics, locally.

report abuse

Michael C

posted April 7, 2010 at 3:45 pm

I suspect that I am not the only cradle catholic who thinks that Dowd is pretty much on the money, because she represents what a lot of us think. Ross on the other hand is just one of those papists.
I agree with her that the church has no respect for women, they are for instance, far less important than a fetus.
I think there is a reason why illegal abortions in poor catholic countries are more frequent than even in America, and it is because of Catholic teaching. On the other hand we know that Catholic women have abortions in numbers greater than one would expect, given the number of Catholic women.
There are two kinds of Catholics in this world. The Papists, about 20%, and the rest of us cafeteria catholics. The problem is that the Papists are the vocal ones, and there are very few like Dowd and myself…………The ones who have given up on the whole mess, knowing that it has been going on for 1600 years, and nothing the Bishops say will actually change anything in the long run.

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 4:08 pm

The shortage is not one of power but of priests……..the inability of the ruling clergy to attract new leadership has put individual priests in the driver’s seat. The Pope and his bishops are scared to discipline and maybe lose one and so they coddle them and cover up their sins. Pastors rule parishes as veritable despots and bishops only care if the books are more or less balanced. Each priest has something on the other so they just look the other way.
A ruling class that cannot replace itself with new members as good or better than themselves will ultimately just pass out of existence. The average new seminarian these days is a 30-something who has failed at several enterprises, including dating. It’s sad. Good men have been scared away!

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 4:16 pm

the Catholic crisis demonstrates the problem of localism, insofar as so many bishops, left since forever to deal with the sex abuse problem on their own, kept Rome in the dark
If localism were at the root of the problem, why are there no localities with dramatically different policies and different histories? Where were the no-tolerance/full-cooperation-with-the-police parishes in the 60s? 70s? 80s? 90s?
And I wish people would stop pretending that the Church can do nothing. The Vatican is most certainly and fervently doing something. It is trying to purge the seminaries of homosexuals under the misguided belief that there lies the problem (and that’s a charitable interpretation of their motives).

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Here’s another reason I don’t quite buy the excuse that Benedict simply lacks the right infrastructure to enforce things. If a bishop blessed a gay marriage or ordained a woman, the pope would excommunicate him by the close of business tomorrow. The papacy has a long reach and a fast one when it wants to.

report abuse

Unapologetic Catholic

posted April 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm

“You see the problem.”
No I don’t see teh problem. the vatican is tryingto have it both ways. If some nun calls for women’s ordination, some bishop expresses some sympathy for condom use by AIDS infected spouses, or soem theologian suggests the Church revist the conctraception issue, then that’s a central problem that must swiftly be dealth with by excommuncation or silencign via demand for obedience.
On the other hand, widespread priestly observance of celibacy mostly in the breach, inclduign sexual relatiosn with adult women and children and episcopla tolerance of such widespread abuse is somehow a local probelm over which the Vatican calism to be powerless.
Nobody advocates “localism” as some fundamental value of Catholcism.
To put it bluntly, this is what we want:
“Shit or get off the pot.”

report abuse

Don Altobello

posted April 7, 2010 at 5:20 pm

“No, that’s too much work.
What will happen is more lay oversight of clerics, locally.”
That won’t work either. Laity voice their outrage…until it is their pastor or someone they work with or know who is being accused. They’re fine with accountability when it is someone not of their political stripe, but when it is, their zeal disappears. Witness Commonweal’s treatment of Archbishop Weakland when it came out he was not only doing the same things as Law but also extorted half a million dollars from the archdiocese…they coddled and sympathized with him.
Transparency and taking steps to ensure that the clergy become “de-insulated” are key. That may mean increased lay oversight, but so-called “lay empowerment” is not a panacea.

report abuse

Erin Manning

posted April 7, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I think there’s quite a misunderstanding going on here between the way the Vatican can act to deal with some *public* transgression, and the way things proceed when someone is accused of some non-public act (as abuse and molestation nearly always are). There is also a misunderstanding about how long it takes the Vatican to react to public transgressions, as well.
If a bishop defies Rome and ordains married men without permission, say, most here seem to think a) Rome can laicize him immediately, and b) Rome *would* laicize him immediately.
However, in the case of Emmanuel Milingo, then-Bishop Milingo did ordain married men as bishops, in 2006. Did the Vatican immediately laicize him? No–first he was excommunicated, which took place after his illegal ordinations. But notice that he was not excommunicated until he did this–he had already entered into a marriage himself several years earlier, but was not excommunicated for that!
When was Bishop Milingo laicized? Not until 2009, three years after he first ordained married bishops. It took Rome, in other words, three years to complete the laicization process in the case of someone who was manifestly and publicly acting illegally as regards Church law.
In the case of priests credibly accused of child abuse, we don’t have a similar situation. The abuse has, of course, not taken place publicly, and the victims are often coming forward years after the abuse happened–something which, even when it occurs in purely secular contexts, makes any sort of prosecution of the accused offender extremely difficult from a legal perspective.
Ordinarily a church trial has to take place before a priest would be laicized, and the priest would be given opportunities to defend himself and to appeal the verdict. If there has already been a criminal trial and the priest has been found guilty of abuse, the process for laicization is, I understand, considerably streamlined. But it is not the case that Rome can simply reach down and excommunicate or laicize any priest who has ever been accused of child abuse, and no matter how much people want that to be the default method of handling such charges, that will likely not ever be the way these things are handled.
What needs to happen, both in the Church and in the world, is for abuse victims to be given safe, trusted places to come forward and tell about the abuse as soon as it happens. I know the Dallas Charter has made that a priority for the Church–there are abuse hotline phone numbers in many dioceses and outreach efforts to victims being made. Because the tragic reality of child sexual abuse is that the longer the victim doesn’t tell, the more likely it is that the offender won’t be prosecuted. The Church can, and should, continue to try to streamline canonical trials for priests credibly accused of abuse, so that at least they can be disciplined by the Church up to and including laicization. But a laicized former priest who is an abuser will still, most likely, be an abuser once he’s been returned to the lay state–and the laicization process won’t make him show up on those maps of registered sex offenders, because he still won’t have ever been found guilty of the crime of abuse.
I’ve been horrified today by a story in the local news:
Consider that this poor girl was abused from the time she was 7 by the man she thought was her father (he turned out not to be her biological father) leading up to her pregnancy by this man when she was only 13. For six years she endured his abuse, and watched as he began to abuse her little sister, too–and if her little sister hadn’t told a counselor, they would both still probably be enduring this hell. The sad truth is that the pregnancy, and the proof that the child was her “father’s” child, made it possible to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that this man was the abuser–a fact which also made it possible for the man to be given a life sentence for this crime of abuse.
There are many lessons for the Church to learn from the Scandal, but there are many lessons for the rest of us, as well. One of the biggest ones is this: if you are abused by anyone–priest, relative, friend, employer, co-worker, teacher, coach, Boy or Girl Scout leader, etc.–tell someone. And then prosecute the abuser to the fullest extent of the law.
Because in the end, even laicizing a priest doesn’t do much to protect children. If “Father Doe” is an abuser one day, and the next day he’s just plain “Mr. Doe,” he’s still an abuser, and every child who crosses his path could still be at risk.

report abuse

Your Name

posted April 7, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Chuck Bloom

posted April 7, 2010 at 6:42 pm

I’ve held my tongu in check about this whole Benedict and the Jews comment because 1) I think, ultimately, it’s seen as silly anad petty; and 2) doesn’t advance the balldown the field in seriously discussing the reaction (totally improper and short-sighted) of the Church.
But darling Maureen … the reason she bags on the church is simple: they don’t a quality martini there.

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Maybe the Catholic church as an organization is just too big. I’m no Catholic, but I suspect the guys in charge spend a lot of energy keeping the flock on the same page, so to speak, when it comes to the tenets of the faith, and as a result they have very little energy left over when it comes to bird dogging personnel problems. Of course, loosening the reins, and then creating a mechanism whereby local bishops answered to a local board of laypersons of some fashion or another when it came to bureaucratic and personnel issues would also open a Pandora’s box, because I doubt the local members would then be willing to continue to cede as much spiritual authority as they seem to do to Rome.
I think this is the dilemma facing the church. How do they effectively police their vast bureaucracy AND also maintain spiritual control of a church that is being pushed and pulled by a variety of political and cultural forces. And, oh yeah, they also need to continue to compete in an effective fashion for members with other mission-oriented religious organizations.

report abuse

Rod Dreher

posted April 7, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Don A.: That won’t work either. Laity voice their outrage…until it is their pastor or someone they work with or know who is being accused. They’re fine with accountability when it is someone not of their political stripe, but when it is, their zeal disappears. Witness Commonweal’s treatment of Archbishop Weakland when it came out he was not only doing the same things as Law but also extorted half a million dollars from the archdiocese…they coddled and sympathized with him.
Good point. I was told by someone in a position to know that one reason a well-known very conservative Catholic publication wouldn’t ride herd on Bishop Timlin, at the time the ordinary of Scranton, for his indulgent treatment of the corrupt Society of St. John was because Timlin was friendly to trads who wanted to have the Tridentine mass.
Liberal Catholics and their publications don’t want to hear or to confront the presence of homosexual clerical networks, especially within seminaries, and their role in helping create a culture of secrets, lies and sexual dysfunction within the priesthood. Conservative Catholics and their publications don’t want to think about how celibacy and undue respect for church authority played a role in this crisis, and prevent its resolution. Every faction in the church has a pet theory that they can find evidence for in this thing. And yes, we have seen too many times churches rally around their own priest when he’s accused.

report abuse

Reader John

posted April 7, 2010 at 7:30 pm

“[O]n the theory that if you’re going to get the blame, you might as well have the authority as well,” why not repudiate the authority and thus deflect the blame? Benedict know that the current Roman Catholic dogman on the Papacy is – ahem – tenuously rooted historically:
“Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium. When the Patriarch Athenagoras, on July 25, 1967, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Phanar, designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most
esteemed among us, as one also presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the doctrine of primacy as it was known in the first millennium. Rome need not ask for more….”
(Ratzinger, Joseph: PRINCIPLES OF CATHOLIC THEOLOGY, Ignatius, 1988, page 199-200)
There’s an incentive to repudiate the accretions about the Papacy if only because some PI lawyer is trying to hail the Vatican into federal court on a “buck stops here” theory. The buck would not stop in Rome if Rome were merely “the most esteemed among us … one who presides in charity….”

report abuse


posted April 7, 2010 at 8:43 pm

When an organization — any organization — has its reform in the hands of the personal injury lawyers, it is 1) in bad shape and 2) probably guilty of failing to reform itself. That’s where our Catholic hierarchy are now……..and it’s their fault.

report abuse

Joseph D'Hippolito

posted April 7, 2010 at 9:57 pm

The ultimate question isn’t local control, Rod. It’s the lack of any effective measures to redress legitimate grievances on the parochial or diocesan levels. Without such measure, the locus of control really is irrelevant.
Besides, you say that the Pope doesn’t have an effective bureaucracy, if I read you right. Well, that bureaucracy is extremely effective in protecting and promoting its own interests — and has been for centuries. What the Church needs is a Pope who can tell the bureaucracy to “drop dead,” either by internal reform or direct command, when its policies and behavior violate fundamental morality.
Then again, it takes somebody who has extraordinary courage to do that. Pope Benedict has made some necessary changes through changing personnel. But does he have the gumption to make structural change or to command behavior more in keeping with Christ than with self-interest?

report abuse


posted April 8, 2010 at 6:29 am

All this presents a good paradox and an important question. I well remember the drum beating for “Collegiality (sp?)” during and immediately after Vatican II.
In the secular realm and on a political level I think the situation in our country has reached a point that our current “union” does not work well and the Federal government will be forced to decentralize in the next decade, or else we split into several regional republics.
Now extending this issue to the Catholic Church we have some similarities and some differences. The Pope is a sign of unity, but he is not and does not want to be a micromanager.
Some say we solve many issues, including the sexual abuse of minors (or at least make the problem go away in the press) by becoming more like a Congregationalist church; in other words less Catholic or non-Catholic. Others say we become more Catholic with better discipline of priests and more oversite, but the question is who is going to do all this.
I think one obvious answer is that the Church becomes a small Church since there are simply too many nominal Catholics who do not have a clue about the Gospels or Church teachings or history and they have no real interest in these things anyway. If Pope Benedict continues doing what he is doing, such as the appointment of Opus Dei member Archbishop Gomez to Los Angeles some say the church in the U.S. will split. But if so where will the non-papal group go? To the Episcopal Church or to one of the breakaway American Catholic Churches? Or to the Eastern Orthodox church? Does this really solve the problem or does it simply make the news stories go away?

report abuse


posted April 8, 2010 at 8:49 am

I’ve said for years that authority/power and accountability/responsibility are closely correlated, and there is no credible way around that. If your claims for the former are high, so too will the latter be held high for you.
Popes act fast when they are moved to do so. If he does not want to be put in the position of being a micromanager, another accountable structure must be established to match authority and responsibility levels.
To my mind, that includes synodal governance and a deep reform of the way bishops are nominated/selected and disciplined/removed; our current system is relatively recent in the church’s history, and not required by doctrine or dogma. I would also get rid of auxiliary bishops except in far-flung mission territories, so that plausible deniability (one of the common baleful features of romanit√†) becomes more evident and awkward at the episcopal level.

report abuse


posted April 8, 2010 at 1:34 pm

As a non-Catholic, I certainly do not believe that I have personal knowledge to comment on the scandal. However, the problem from an outsider’s perspective appears to be one of culture. Priests were allowed to behave badly because of their position alone, and everyone accepted that this was simply the way things were.
I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, and this culture is hard for me to relate to. In the 1970s, my parents had a huge conflict with our pastor. The conflict was over issues of theology and some inappropriate behavior by the pastor (heavy drinking with parishioners. I was a child at the time and honestly don’t know all of the details). Certainly there was a lot of conflict in the congretation over whether or not to support this pastor. It was an awful time in that church. Regardless, my parents felt empowered to view their displeasure with this guy.
However, if this pastor had engaged in the abuse of a child, or had engaged in adultery, I simply can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have been fired. And no one would have said he couldn’t be fired because he was a pastor and somehow immune.
If the culture of accepting evil behavior by priests changes, the localism vs. centralization issue will go away. And the RCC would have a much better chance of attracting potential converts like me.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Rod Dreher. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Most Recent Scientology Story on Beliefnet! Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 3:25:02pm Aug. 27, 2012 | read full post »

Mommy explains her plastic surgery
In Dallas (naturally), a parenting magazine discusses how easy it is for mommies who don't like their post-child bodies to get surgery -- and to have it financed! -- to reverse the effects of time and childbirth. Don't like what nursing has done ...

posted 10:00:56pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

Why I became Orthodox
Wrapping up my four Beliefnet years, I was thinking about the posts that attracted the most attention and comment in that time. Without a doubt the most popular (in terms of attracting attention, not all of it admiring, to be sure) was the ...

posted 9:46:58pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

Modern Calvinists
Wow, they don't make Presbyterians like they used to! ...

posted 8:47:01pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »

'Rape by deception'? Huh?
The BBC this morning reported on a bizarre case in Israel of an Arab man convicted of "rape by deception," because he'd led the Jewish woman with whom he'd had consensual sex to believe he was Jewish. Ha'aretz has the story here. Plainly it's a ...

posted 7:51:28pm Jul. 21, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.