An Invitation to the Laity by Christopher Tollefsen

The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: A Scriptural Journey
July 31, 2018
Daniel Burke: This Scandal is the Last Straw — Why Stay in the Catholic Church? (Video)
July 31, 2018

By Christopher Tollefsen, First Things, 7 . 30 . 18

My Fellow Catholics,

On July 28, I sent the letter below to my bishop, the Most Reverend Robert E. Guglielmone of the Diocese of Charleston. In it, I explain that I will no longer contribute to diocesan appeals for financial contributions until I am convinced by his public actions and witness that he is zealously seeking the creation of an independent investigation into the failings of the American hierarchy in regard to Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct. I expect him to seek as well the removal from office of any bishops judged by such an investigation to have behaved negligently or worse. I ask my fellow Catholics to consider whether they also should withhold their diocesan contributions, in order to bring to bear one of the only effective forms of influence over the bishops that is available to us. I make the letter available for any who so decide, so that they may use it as a template for a letter to their local bishops. They should also feel free to forward it to anyone else that might be interested in making use of it.

Your Excellency,

I write to explain why I and my family will no longer be contributing to diocesan appeals for financial assistance, and to identify the conditions under which I will once again resume making the requested donations. I hope that many throughout our diocese, and indeed, throughout the country, will pursue a similar path to ours.

The McCarrick scandal has left us more than unsettled, and indeed, more than angry. I speak here not primarily of McCarrick’s own actions, which are disgusting and wicked. Rather, I speak of the behavior of his fellow bishops, who were, at various times dating back at least to 1994, issued complaints, warnings, accusations, and petitions. They did nothing, and McCarrick’s rise to become one of the most prominent and influential American bishops is well known.

These facts force us to conclude that those charged by Our Lord with leading His Church, teaching the faith passed down from His apostles, and shepherding His faithful, have been gravely, grossly negligent. That negligence has had grave consequences for the victims of McCarrick’s abuse; a Church that should have protected Her children, and Her seminarians, instead betrayed them.

So, after prayer and discernment, my family has decided that we will not again contribute to diocesan requests for money until we are convinced by your public witness and actions that you are working to the following ends:

One: that there be established an independently led investigation, whose purpose is to find out which members of the hierarchy knew, or had heard of, McCarrick’s depravity, and yet did nothing. That investigation must be led by men and women of unimpeachable integrity, it must be maximally transparent, and it must be thorough and uncompromising. Those who lead it must be men and women of sound faith, whose genuine love for the Church is their guiding motivation. It must do its work within a clearly stated and maintained framework of protection for all whistleblowers. Its findings must be honestly and unambiguously promulgated to the faithful. If it is not clear to the people of the Church that the investigation meets these standards, it will fail in its purpose.

Two: that every bishop who is judged negligent by this tribunal be removed from office. The bar for being judged negligent by this commission must be low: Any bishop who lied even once to protect McCarrick; every bishop to whom communication concerning McCarrick was directed but not read or heard, or was read or heard but not acted upon; every bishop who was in on the “open secret” but presumed that it was not his task to act; every bishop who accepted favor and aid from McCarrick in moving upwards in the hierarchy while ignoring what was evident to all; every such bishop should be asked to resign, a grievous consequence, but one fitting to the scale and horror of what has gone wrong.

Your Excellency, you may well wonder why I am refusing to contribute to your diocesan appeals, when I have no reason to suspect you of participating in this scandalous cover-up. There are two reasons.

The first is that, sadly, we have arrived at a point where it is impossible for members of the laity fully to trust any bishop with whom we are not personally and intimately acquainted. I know that there are good bishops, and no doubt their friends can testify to their integrity and veracity. But the bishops are a brotherhood, and it is simply a fact that brothers talk, and that they look out for their own. We have ample evidence that the bishops have looked out for their own; we presume as well that they have talked, that it has been more or less an open secret among the bishops, as it was among many, many, others, that McCarrick was at least unchaste, if not sexually abusive, and a child rapist.

So in communicating with bishops with whom we are not personally and intimately acquainted, we cannot presume innocence. I would certainly like to advance the benefit of the doubt to you personally, but I cannot do so unless and until it becomes clear to me that you are advancing—firmly, constantly, vigorously, and publicly—the cause of a restoration of moral order to the ranks of the episcopate, transparency in the Church, and accountability on the part of Her leaders.

And this brings me to the second reason. You might well be innocent of this whole mess; you might well have been entirely ignorant of what was going on. I sincerely hope so. And if so, I expect that your response will be similar to mine: You will be zealous for an independent investigation, and ready to see the ranks of the episcopate thinned, perhaps radically, as the results of that investigation become known.

But I expect that most bishops, even the innocent ones, will instead turn to the business of running their own dioceses—a difficult, time-consuming, and often thankless task. They will think that they have insufficient “skin in the game” of a scandal that involves prelates of the major dioceses, movers and shakers of the hierarchy. And so they will do little or nothing, save perhaps repeat the anodyne messages of “concern and accountability” that are the stock and trade of the hierarchy at these times. And nothing will change.

But, Your Excellency, there must be change. Moreover, the responsibility for bringing about that change is one that the laity shares. Yet, as is clear, the laity have exceedingly limited means by which to discharge that responsibility. The bishops as a group have given us ample reason to judge that they will not voluntarily get their house in order, and they have given us little reason to judge that they can be trusted honestly to investigate this mess. So we laity are doing the only thing we can do that seems to promise success in getting the bishops to demand and cooperate with an independent investigation.

So, for now, my money will go to my parish, and to charities of my choice. I will increase the amount I give in both instances by the amount I used to give to the diocese. And I will hope, and pray, to see clear and public efforts on your part to meet what I hope we both agree is the most pressing and immediate need of the Church we both love.

In Christ,

Christopher Tollefsen

Christopher Tollefsen, a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and author, with Robert. P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.