Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Bishop of Bling v. USCCB’s Omertà

There’s no doubt that the profligate lifestyle of the Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, stinks like the local cheese. One can hope that Pope Francis has exiled him from his palatial residence to contemplate his behavior in a monastic cell with a hard cot, a diet of bread and legumes, and the bathroom down the hall.

But what Americans would do well to contemplate in this case of episcopal discipline is the criticism that the head of the German bishops conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has leveled at his colleague. Zollitsch said that Tebartz-van Elst had created credibility problems for the church. The “decisive” turning point came, he said, when the public prosecutor asked the court to fine the bishop for falsely testifying in a related case. He announced the creation of a church commission to investigate, and said it would do its work “quickly and carefully.”

Compare that to the response of the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, to misbehavior by his colleagues. Not a peep when Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City is convicted of the crime of covering up a suspected case of child abuse. Not a peep when Archbishop Robert Myers of Newark is revealed to have failed to follow his agreement with the court on the handling of an abusive priest. Not a peep when it comes to light that Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been covering up abuse cases.

In St. Paul, one priest took to the pages of his parish bulletin this week to call for Nienstedt’s departure in an essay titled “Our Troubled Archdiocese; Restoring Credibility.” “Things can’t seem to be more twisted and out of hand,” wrote Father Bill Deziel. “It leaves us all crying foul and I share the frustration and outrage that many of you have expressed.”

Cardinal Dolan & Co., not so much.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • Thanks, Mark, for pointing out the fundamentally inconsistent approach to bishop accountability for protecting child abusers. This is Pope Francis’ Achilles heel.
    One is almost compelled to conclude that the Cardinals elected Francis to change the subject to the poor, while avoiding the subject of poor kids abused by priests.
    This apparent “bait and switch” strategy is further reinforced by Francis’ appointment as his number 2 man as Vatican Secretary of State of Pietro Parolin, the protege of Cardinal Sodano.
    Sodano is well known for his 2010 Easter Mass public proclamation that priest sexual abuse of children is just “petty gossip”. It is not petty to the victims and their families.
    Parolin is the most likely candidate now to succeed Francis in a few years. For further info, please see my remarks as a lifelong Catholic and retired Harvard trained lawyer at:

  • Mark is right of course. But it’s easy to come down on one isolated bishop for an issue that doesn’t happen often. If all bishops who covered up abuse were disciplined, how many would be left? Shaming and shushing those who tried to talk about abuse used to be business as usual, so I’m guessing none.

  • I really think that the US Bishops have bitten off more than they can chew. Not only do they continue their feckless war on abortion, but now they add opposition to marriage equality and birth control access to their mandate. This while putting out the abuse crisis fires springing up all around them.

    I am reminded of a picture I saw in the paper after the last “March for Life” of a woman carrying a sign that said “Courageously abolishing abortion”. They haven’t done that, and what is courageous about carrying a sign? I did see a poster in a local gas station about a boy who needs a home, but local “pro-lifers” haven’t taken it upon themselves to adopt him. Too busy marching, perhaps.

  • How much money did Cardinal Adam Maida pony up for the ill-conceived Pope John Paul II Center in DC? I heard it was over $40 million and it was taken from Detroit’s cemetery trust fund. The KCs bailed out Detroit, kind of, by purchasing the center for a few million.
    Bishops are, at best, amoral, in my estimation. Selective morality when it involves the brothers.

  • Statement by Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, Outreach Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (314 862 7688 home, 314 503 0003 cell,[email protected])

    Pope Francis has suspended a German bishop for financial misdeeds.

    But he ignores bishops who have concealed or are concealing child sex crimes. He should suspend them promptly, starting with Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City Missouri, who was convicted in 2012 of withholding evidence – hundreds of sexual photos of young girls – from police.

    There are many bishops who should be suspended. But Finn is the most clearly proven wrongdoer. His guilt was established in an impartial trial in open court, despite a bevy of experienced and highly-paid lawyers fighting on his behalf.

    Many Catholics no doubt applaud the German bishop’s suspension. But think about the message it sends hundreds of thousands of victims of child molesting clerics: “The Pope cares more about saving the church’s money than about saving the church’s children.”

    One reason to suspend a wrongdoer is to deter others from emulating him. So what’s more crucial to deter? Child sex crimes and cover ups? Or financial extravagance?

    Contact – David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, [email protected]), Barbara Dorris (314-862-7688 home, 314-503-0003 cell, [email protected]), Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747, [email protected])

  • Too bad Bishop Tebartz-van Elst isn’t gay. Then he would have gotten a free pass from Pope Francis under Francis’s new “Who am I to judge?” doctrine.