Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications, and a contributor to numerous Catholic books, magazines, and online publications. Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
I do not know a single Catholic who is not horrified by the depravity of the McCarrick scandal and the extent of the complicity among our clergy. But a more difficult question then arises: How do we, ordinary lay people lacking any authority for the administration of the Church, help?
Well, there are no silver bullets or instant cures. But there are some positive things we the laity can do to help. Remembering that merciful love does not mean enabling criminal behavior, here’s a list of ideas to get you started.
1. Write a Letter
Don’t jump to conclusions or speculate about your bishop’s share of the blame. Instead, send a letter to your bishop directly, requesting he explain what part he played in covering for McCarrick and others. Is he likely to answer? Who can say? We will be unsurprised if the guilty parties to continue with their equivocating and perhaps even some outright lying. But we need to give innocent men a chance to defend themselves, and guilty men a chance to acknowledge their sins and make reparations.
By way of example, here’s a blog post that includes layman Michael Lynch’s correspondence with his bishop, Barry Knestout. Take your time to compose a respectful inquiry – there is no clock ticking, so if you need to cool down before you write, do that.
2. Request Change
A friend and well-informed scholar shared with me a letter he is preparing that contains a set of specific actions he is going to request from our bishop. When the time comes, I’ll be either signing a group letter or using his model to send one of my own. Think about what kinds of changes your diocese could make. Would putting together an investigative team be appropriate? Ask for it! You might be ignored, but at least you tried.
3. Report Sexual Harassment and Employment Discrimination
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is your go-to for assistance in incidents of sexual harassment at work, including employment discrimination you experience as a result of whistle-blowing. There are strict deadlines for reporting, though, so get your complaint in right away. The EEOC can direct you to state-level reporting agencies – in some cases your state or local laws may provide better protection than federal law. The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is the agency to whom you report sexual harassment at your college. You may report harassment at school on behalf of another person who is being harassed.
4. Report Crimes Whether It’s Mandatory or Not
Depending on your profession or the role you serve in your parish, you may or may not be a “mandatory reporter” for certain crimes. Regardless: If you are aware of a crime being committed — whether it be assault, molestation, child porn, embezzlement, you-name-it — get in touch with the appropriate local authorities.
If you are not sure whether the incident is really a crime, call the local police and explain what you’ve observed. It is their job to help you sort out the details. If you are concerned about bringing down the law on an innocent person, you can leave out names and other identifying details until you’ve gotten a clear answer on whether or not you’ve witnessed a crime.
5. Document Your Interactions
Church life involves instances of decent people working through complex situations; it also can involve evil people trying to get away with terrible crimes. When you see a situation of concern, write to the person in authority and explain your concerns. Written communication helps protect innocent people: For example, if you tell your pastor about a potentially serious situation, but in your haste you forget to share a key detail, there will be no wondering later what information you shared. Depending on hazy memories of past phone calls is a terrible way to defend an innocent priest against charges that he failed to report a crime to the authorities.
In the same way, documenting helps build the case against the guilty, even if no one piece of evidence is itself incriminating. Documenting can show a pattern of reliability and prompt responses that make the case in favor of the innocent employee who made one minor error one time, and it can likewise reveal a consistent pattern of negligence and obfuscation.
6. Provide Financial Support to Whistleblowers
Clergy and laity who work for the Church are often understandably concerned about financial ruin if they don’t get along with their ecclesiastical employer. Priests may have few options for career-changing, especially late in life, and families trying to live on church salaries may have little in the way of savings during a difficult transition to secular employment.
Are you able to help by providing a job, housing, or outright financial assistance? Be that donor. Are you able to connect a whistleblower with others who can provide support? Let it be widely known that you are ready and willing to help out in a time of need.
7. Insist on Financial Transparency
Embezzlement is a problem in the Church. Does your parish have a good system of accounting controls? Do you know where your parish and diocesan money actually goes, or are you the recipient of your pastor’s and bishop’s “financial reports” but have no way of verifying their accuracy? If you have the needed skills, volunteer to be part of the team that makes sure your parish and diocese manage their money appropriately. Good financial oversight can help catch non-financial crimes too.
8. Support the Church without Supporting Bad Leaders
Do you have an obligation to support the work of the Church? Yes you do. Does that mean you are obliged to give people free reign with your cash? No, it does not. You have several options for providing for the needs of the Church in a restrained and sober manner:
- Direct Your Donations. Restricted Funds are donations that you the donor specify can only be used for certain purposes. Consult with an accountant knowledgeable of your state’s laws about restricted donations.
- Give Non-Cash and No-Cash-in-Hand Donations. A restricted fund is only helpful if your parish or diocese is obeying the law. If transparency is lacking, make your donations in the form of the actual item that is needed. You can volunteer your professional services, you can purchase needed supplies directly, and you can offer to personally pay the bills of contractors. If you normally deduct your donations, note that you cannot take a deduction for the value of donated professional services, though you can deduct actual expenses you incur while performing the service.
- Support the Good Guys. You are not required to fund every appeal that comes your way. Be selective in deciding which ministries you will support and which will you will not. If your bishop is refusing to be open and accountable, let him know that you won’t be funding or promoting diocesan projects until he changes his ways. There are plenty of good ministries that you can support instead.
9. Let Others Know Where You Stand
Many Catholics are horrified by the latest scandals but don’t know what to say. They are rightly turning to prayer, fasting, and the pursuit of their own holiness. But people need to know that faithful Catholics have no tolerance for clerical crimes. Make your opinion public so that no one is wondering where you stand.