30 August 2018, The Tablet

Brandon Vogt interview of Bishop Robert Barron

by Transcribed by Edward Kendall

Brandon Vogt interview of Bishop Barron.

Transcript by Edward Kendall


Vogt: What was your initial reaction when you first heard about the McCarrick news and then about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report?


Barron: Well, it was one of shock and dismay and depression. I think with the Pennsylvania report certainly we had known about sexual abuse by clergy going back many decades, but some of the gross and terrible details that came forward were just stomach-turning and I don’t hesitate to say that there was really a demonic element that you see in these things. That’s what struck me in that awful Pennsylvania report. The McCarrick situation that the abuse was going on at such a high level, the corruption that reached that part of the Church’s life. I was also struck by the similarity to a lot of the “me too” stuff because not only was it a sexual assault (and it was certainly that) but also a terrible abuse of power. So these young men who wanted the priesthood and this was the man who could give it to them or deny it to them. So it was a terrible abuse of power and authority.


Vogt: I know you’re a student of church history, you’re familiar with the long history of problems and scandals in the Catholic Church. How do you see this crisis comparing to past crises?


Barron: It’s the worst in our history (meaning American Catholic Church’s history) for sure. If you’d asked me 25 years ago I would have said that terrible period in the nineteenth century when churches and convents are being burned down; when there were political parties organised in an explicitly anti-Catholic way. But the scandals from 2002 and now this time far surpass that in terms of their damage to the church and to people’s lives. So it’s the worst in the American Catholic Church’s history for sure. So it’s important for all of us Catholics to realize we’re passing through this particularly terrible time and that we have to seize the moment; it’s time for us to act. We can’t simply be passive in the face of this terrible crisis.


Vogt: I know the first instinct for a lot of people (and I’m sure you share it) is what are we going to do? We want to take action to not only bring justice to these situations but to make sure they don’t happen again and we’re going to discuss what we can do here in just a moment. But before we do I wanted to ask you about how important it is to keep the focus on the victims of these egregious crimes and to call them what they are – they’re not just boundary violations. There’s something more specific and serious. Talk about that need.


Barron: I think that was actually a helpful thing in the Pennsylvania report. They did away with a lot of those euphemisms and they named what was going on which was a great criminal act – the sexual abuse of children and of young people; the sexual assault of human beings. And so I think we shouldn’t play word games and we shouldn’t cover up we should say what these things are. Terrible crimes were committed by people who were dedicated to Christ and the Church and were meant to embody the presence of Jesus in the world which made those crimes that much greater and that much more destructive physically, psychologically and spiritually. The lives that were shattered by these acts. Maybe fifty years ago people didn’t quite understand that. If we don’t understand that now we’re blind deaf and stupid – that lives were shattered, broken, and destroyed by these acts. So I think its important for us to name them as crimes – crimes of sexual assault and sexual violence.


Vogt: What is your take on the suggestion that many people have made that the root of all of these problems is clericalism?


Barron: Anything as complex as this phenomenon has multiple causes. It’s one of the fallacies of logic we talk about is the fallacy of single causality. Almost every event has multiple causes. I don’t’ hesitate for a minute to say clericalism is one of the causes, by which I mean this terrible abuse of privilege and power. So a clergy person who should see himself as in service to the community rather taking his position as an opportunity to exercise violence and power over people. To that degree I say sure clericalism is part of the problem. But I also go back to what Richard John N(?) said many years ago that the three causes of this problem are infidelity, infidelity, and infidelity. So certainly lack of faithfulness to one’s priestly vows and identity is absolutely basic. Is homosexuality something we should mention? Sure, I think 80 per cent of these cases involve male on male sexual assault. Now we always have to be careful and it’s important to make these distinctions that it’s not to say that every homosexual person is apt to sexual violence or that priests with same sex attractions are necessarily going to engage in this kind of activity. Obviously not, there’s no evidence for that. Nevertheless there is evidence that the vast majority of these cases involve male on male sexual violence. Is that worth looking at? Yeah, absolutely. So I would look at a range of causes – those and others besides.


Vogt: Let’s talk about the effects of all of these instances of abuse. Obviously the focus should remain on the victims who are directly affected by this horrific abuse. But beyond that how do these crimes affect the greater body of Christ?


Barron: I have said this scandal is a diabolical masterpiece because it undermines the work of the Church in practically every way. Most immediately in my case as an evangelizer. Talk about the best way to undermine any evangelical effort; an effort to propagate the Church’s teaching; to make the Church attractive to people; to draw them to Christ. What would be more effective way to undo that work than to have priests engaging in the sexual abuse of young people. In terms of our credibility; our role in the public forum; choose your issue. We are undermined in every way by it, which is why we have to come to grips with it. We can’t rest until the thing has been solved. I say that with a lot of passion because the work of the Church – to worship God, to serve the poor, to evangelise (as Pope Benedict said the three great tasks of the Church) – all three of them are undermined and compromised by this work. Just think for a moment: well of excess of billions of dollars that have been paid out – dollars that could have and should have gone to the care for the poor, the building of institutions etc. Just in that way the Church’s work is dramatically undermined. So until we come fully to grips with it the Church is not going to move forward.


Vogt: One proposed solution, which I have seen a lot especially on the internet, is that the American bishops are so compromised that we just need to clean house and get rid of all the bishops. What do you think of that?


Barron: I never think that injustice is solved by more injustice. I understand the emotional appeal of that, but the overwhelming majority of priests and bishops are not guilty of these crimes and so that indiscriminate sweeping away actually produces more injustice not less. It doesn’t solve the original problem by adding more injustice to it. Secondly, more pragmatically, it would produce chaos overnight in a bishops conference the size of ours. You’d invite chaos overnight, but the more fundamental problem is that it is just a deep injustice. I know it is emotionally appealing but I don’t think it is a morally attractive option.


Vogt: It seems that there are really two responses which are both necessary when it comes to the abuse crisis. One is the spiritual renewal of the Church, the other is the response of practical action which I know a lot of people are demanding. After the McCarrick scandal broke you wrote an article proposing one immediate practical response and I’m going to quote you here: “I would suggest, as a lowly backbencher auxiliary bishop, that the bishops of the United States (all of us) petition the Holy Father to form a team made up mostly of faithful lay Catholics skilled in forensic investigation and empower them to have access to all of the relevant documentation and financial records; their task should be to determine how Archbishop McCarrick managed, despite his widespread reputation for iniquity, to rise through the ranks of the hierarchy and to continue in his retirement years to function as a roving ambassador for the Church and to have a disproportionate influence on the appointment of bishops. They should ask the ecclesial version of Senator Howard Baker’s famous question, ‘What did the responsible parties know? And when did they know it?’ Only after these matters are settled will we know what the next steps ought to be.” You wrote that a couple of weeks ago after the McCarrick stuff first broke. Do you think that is still the right move forward?


Barron: Yes, and I’ll say it (I’m not trying to claim any great credit) but it was not long after I wrote that statement that the USCCB leadership came out with a very similar proposal, namely that we have to petition the Vatican because only the Vatican can police bishops. We can’t really police ourselves in the strict sense. The Conference cannot impose sanctions on other bishops. So to petition the Vatican to sponsor a largely lay-led investigation to look into what made the McCarrick debacle possible. So I fully supported that (they were echoing a lot of the things I’d said in my own article) and I still think that is the best way forward. We should keep our eyes on this particular issue. I know we’re tempted to run in every possible direction to solve every relevant problem and maybe in time we’ll see all those implications but I think for the moment to figure out what happened with McCarrick, how it happened, and get at the responsible people and to do it in a way that gives the priority to lay people skilled in forensic investigation. I’m not skilled in that: I don’t know all the right questions to ask, all the ways to analyse documentation. But let’s get lay people who are. Secondly, the Church ought to give full access to the relevant documentation to provide access to the relevant people, etc. So I would fully support and continue to support that approach.


Vogt: Let’s talk now about the spiritual response to a crisis like this. In times of great crisis and depravity how ought the people of God respond spiritually?


Barron: First of all (it can sound like a glib platitude) through prayer. We have to invoke the Holy Spirit. We have to recommit ourselves to Christ. So prayer, absolutely. A return to the spiritual sources, not to run from them. I understand the temptation. People in their frustration, understandably, say I’m through with the Church. This is the moment to return to the great spiritual sources: that means the Gospel, the Mass, the saints, all the vehicles of prayer etc. That’s extremely important. I have no quarrel whatsoever with lay people making their voices heard. I made my voice heard as a member of the Bishops Conference. Nothing prevents a layperson saying here’s what I think the Church ought to do. Bring it to the attention of the relevant authorities. The people of the God have that kingly responsibility themselves: all baptized people are priests, prophets, and kings. So I think that’s altogether a valid thing for the laity to do.

Vogt: Let’s talk now about the recent letter that Archbishop Vigano produced – this 11-page report where he makes some pretty blunt accusations against many high-ranking church officials. What was your initial reaction to that letter? Where do we go from here now that the letter has been sent out?


Barron: Well, it was a bit of a bombshell. I was in Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. I was sound asleep and I got a phone call to say ‘you have to read this’ – it was the middle of the night so I just got an overview of it. The next morning I actually did a first cursory reading of it and it was indeed a bombshell. Extraordinary charges being made including against the Holy Father himself. It was a bit shocking especially in that environment – I was in Ireland in fact with the Pope for the World Meeting of Families. So it was to say the least unnerving (I think for any Catholic). What do we do going forward? Here I would like to add my voice to that of the executive committee of the USCCB. Just this afternoon Cardinal DiNardo, the president of the conference, issued a statement. He reiterated what was said a couple of weeks ago, namely that we should proceed with a Vatican-sponsored but largely lay-led investigation to figure out what happened with McCarrick. If you had asked me two weeks ago ‘okay, if you were advising that committee whom would you say they should talk to?’ On my shortlist of people to talk to would have been Cardinal Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio during some of these relevant years. The fact that he has come forward now with a statement – I’d say okay, fair enough, he has made his testimony. Now, do we buy it hook, line, and sinker. Well no, in fact as I read the document there seemed things that seemed highly speculative to me, some things that driven by emotion, other things seemed far more substantive and specific and at least (he claims) tied to documentation. Worth looking at? Yeah, you bet! This is not some minor player, this is the former apostolic nuncio to the United States. This is not an insubstantial figure. He’s making some serious claims I’d say look into them. Let’s take an honest, objective look at what’s being claimed here. See, Brandon, finally the question that matters is ‘what’s the truth?’ The truth will set us free and it’s so easy, you see it all the time, to get distracted from that question. And I know people’s emotions are stirred up – I totally understand that – and we tend to run off looking at all kinds of related issues. Finally, in regard to the McCarrick situation, what’s the truth? Let’s do all we can to get at that. It seems to me that’s the most important thing. That’s what I recommend in regard to the Vigano testimony: let’s honestly and objectively analyze it. Let this group we’re talking about – Vatican sponsored largely lay-led people skilled in forensic investigation – have them look into these claims and then I think we’ll get the best access to what the truth is.


Vogt: I like what Cardinal DiNardo said in the statement you just referenced from the USCCB’s executive committee. They just released this a couple of hours ago and I know you said you wholly agree with their angle at it. But Cardinal DiNardo said the recent letter of Archbishop Vigano brings particular focus and urgency to the examination, the questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers innocent men may be tainted by false accusation or guilty men may be left to repeat sins of the past. What I like is he’s saying either way we should take it seriously and look into it, right?


Barron: Amen. I agree with that. What’s the truth? Let’s find out. Anything else is going to get us distracted and will lead to more trouble as he’s describing there: either guilty people are let off or innocent people are blamed. What’s the truth here? Let’s find out. Only the truth will set us free. Should we be frightened or limited in that quest? I would say no; we should give this investigation full reign and let it have access to all the relevant documentation.


Vogt: Let me ask you this? The Church is not merely a non-governmental organization or charity. We’re Christian. We’re Christocentric. So where does the Lord come into all this? What role does Jesus have to play in a crisis of this magnitude?


Barron: Well, he has every role in a way to play. One of the great mysteries, Brandon, is what they call the mysterium iniquitatus: the mystery of evil. Physical evil: why do innocent people die in hurricanes and tsunamis and so on? But then this maybe even more troubling issue of moral iniquity. Why does God permit it? The classical answer of our tradition is that God permits certain evils to bring out of them a greater good. Therefore we should always look at what is the possible good that might come of this evil situation. What are the signs of life we could look for? How is Christ cleansing and purifying His Church? Is the Christ who purifies His Church now at work? Yes, and I would say, as a good Thomist, working through secondary causes. Like, for example, the indignation of the Catholic people. Like, for example, the anger of the laity. Like, for example, the anger of priests and bishops at their brothers who have done these terrible things. Like, for example, this investigation team that I hope gets formed. Christ with his winnowing fan and working through instrumental secondary causes does his work of purifying the Church. So engage with him, I would say. The Christian life is not an abstract philosophy, it’s a friendship with Jesus: a relationship to him. How is Christ alive in His Church today – precisely in this cleansing mode. He also says, in regard to himself, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’. What’s repugnant to the truth is repugnant to him, what is congruent with the truth is congruent with him. The closer we get to the truth of things the more we’re cooperating with the Lord who operates in His Church. I would say maybe a last thing about the spiritual warfare. I just spoke to these 300 priests at our preaching conference and it was the feast day of the Queenship of Mary and I talked about it not being a twee sentimental feast, on the contrary, because Mary the Queen is associated with Christ the king. The king in the Israelite tradition with his Queen Mother – they’re warrior figures. They do battle with the enemies of Israel and so now Christ and Mary, his Queen Mother, are warriors in the great spiritual struggle. Does anyone doubt that the demonic power has been at work in this terrible time? Does anyone doubt that? You’d be naïve in the extreme to deny it. What’s our job? Get in the army of Christ the King and Mary the Queen Mother and fight with them for the purification of Our Church. Yes, prayer and through penance and through fasting and through abstinence and through raising one’s voice: whatever means you want to use. But to cooperate with Christ the King and his cleansing and purifying work. That’s the spiritual call of our time.


Vogt: Any final words or last words about the whole abuse crisis?


Barron: There are so many different angles on this thing and so many things we could look at and people have been doing that over the past many years. But I would want to bring into clear and very sharp focus that we’re talking about the victims of these terrible crimes. We’re talking about young people who were sexually assaulted, who were raped, and we should keep that crime first and foremost in mind. That we’re fighting in this thing is true is true, but we’re fighting on their behalf. Institutional issues and all that we should look at of course, but finally it is about these people who were terribly, terribly victimized and that we’re here to advocate for them and the reason we can’t be silent and we can’t duck the question and we can’t play games is that these victims of violent sexual assault need to be addressed and reached out to. Pope Francis says that the Church is a field hospital, well some of the people who are most wounded right now in the life of the Church are those who are victimized by priests and by bishops so that should be the focus of our attention.

What do you think?


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