In an extraordinary public letter, one of the most prominent lay American Catholics, head of a vast business and fraternal group that has long defended the priesthood, has reacted to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's damning 1,000-page report on sexually abusive priests by demanding more disclosure of "devastating criminal acts."
Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, which claims nearly two million members, mostly in the U.S., wrote to 15,000 local councils that his members feel "deeply betrayed" by bishops whose "distorted sense of mercy" in failing to remove priests who sexually abused children from ministry, or report them to authorities, have left "wreckage" in the church.
He calls for a "full accounting" of crimes and "cover-ups," public disclosure that would presumably end the Secret Archives in which bishops detailed pastoral sins but did little to keep pedophile priests from hurting more children, and "zero tolerance" for violations of church rules for priestly behavior.
The Connecticut-based Knights of Columbus is: a life insurance company, with more than $100 billion in policies, $25 billion in investment assets, and a top rating from A.M. Best & Co.; a charity, reporting $185 million in donations last year, plus volunteer mobilizations; and a fraternal organization, with distinctive hats, degrees of rank, and ceremonial swords, superficially resembling Masonic lodges.
Anderson is paid more than $1 million a year and enjoys the clout that comes with heading a well-funded, state-regulated lay group with a grass-roots organization tied to an international sales force. But the Knights' prospects remain tied to a U.S. church that has been in decline as old members die and young people fail to replace them.
As with Pope Francis' ashamed response to Shapiro's findings, Anderson doesn't comment on Shapiro's demand that the state make it easier for victims to sue dioceses for crimes committed years ago.
Nor does Anderson call for changing church teachings on priestly celibacy. He doesn't discuss longstanding calls by critics to encourage woman or married people to become pastors or take other roles limited to priests. He instead demands church celibacy rules be enforced to the letter, even if that means expelling more priests and bishops and further depleting the undermanned Catholic clergy.
Anderson does briefly sketch a vision of what the church needs to do if it is to get past the faith-deadening litany of abuse. His prescription includes increased lay leadership — including direct involvement by local members of the Knights — and an emphasis on the "domestic," or home, church.
In Philadelphia and other areas with large immigrant populations, Catholics in the 1800s and early 1900s built hospitals, colleges and neighborhood parishes, led by members of its celibate male priesthood and staffed by religious sisters. The churches provided schools and social services, and helped hold down the cost of public services while building a large, distinctive Catholic community. While Catholic colleges and hospitals are mostly run by lay managers and continue to grow, "vocations" to the priesthood and sisterhoods have plunged since the 1960s, the parishes and schools controlled by local bishops and led by priests have withered, and the shrunken church has lost political influence.
The Supreme Knight in his letter endorsed such old-time pious practices as a U.S. tour of the preserved heart of St. John Vianney, a French priest considered a model for pastors. Such religious relics were designed to bring readers closer to saints, people whose lives serve as examples for Catholics. The church needs saints "more than anything," Anderson wrote.
Anderson also writes: "These sins of commission and omission have sent the church we love, the church we serve and the church that Jesus Christ established into convulsions. Sadly, the disgrace not only is borne by the perpetrators, it hurts us all, as does the silence of shepherds who have ignored the cries of their flocks.
"Too often the needs of victims have been subordinated to a distorted sense of mercy toward the perpetrators or an instinct for clerical self-preservation. The sexual acts — both criminal and non-criminal — highlight the need to recover a respect for and a renewed commitment to the priestly promises of celibacy…
"We must commit the Knights of Columbus to work for repentance, reform and rebuilding of the church. Repentance should include a full accounting of the misdeeds by those who have committed them. Archbishop [Theodore] McCarrick and others at fault owe us a full account of their actions, motivations and cover-ups.
"After years of having us confess to them, it is now time for them to come clean about what they have done and what they have failed to do.
Anderson listed several practical steps he said would help restore the church's credibility: "A full and complete investigation of sexual abuse led by an independent commission. … Complete transparency by the Catholic hierarchy into all matters of criminal sexual misconduct past or future; an expansion of the zero-tolerance policy to include sexual activity or misconduct by clerics including bishops. … There must also be an independent ethics hotline for reporting of criminal and other conduct at odds with Catholic teaching on the clerical state of life; and there must be protections against retaliation.
"Such reforms," Anderson added, "will be difficult for a church largely unused to them."