Identifying the Root Causes of the Crises and the Culture Change Needed to Address Them

Horrific as the sexual abuse and leadership crises confronting the Catholic Church in the United States has been, there is an abiding hope that from its ashes can emerge a bold new culture of leadership and management that combines the abundant strengths of clergy and laity to ensure transparency, accountability, and co-responsibility. The new culture should not only provide safety for all ages, but also renew the Church and restore trust.

To be successful, this rebuilding first requires a meticulous assessment of the root causes of the twin crises: the crisis of sexual abuse and the crisis of leadership failures that covered up that abuse. Leadership Roundtable’s Catholic Partnership Summit, held February 1 and 2 in Washington, D.C., was an important step on the road to identifying the foundational and systemic causes of the crises along with meaningful and sustainable ways to address them. “This is a watershed moment in which we have to look at how we exercise leadership in the life of the Church, and authority in the life of the Church,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, before an audience of 200 Catholic leaders.

Kim Daniels, Associate Director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, spoke to the urgent need to take action. She talked about a recent gathering with young Catholics in which she was reminded that “it’s on us…to help carry forward the deposit of faith for them.”


Identifying the Root Causes

The Catholic Church has historically operated with an insular form of governance. Within the diocesan structure, decisions are made by bishops with little input from others beyond the chancery. Synodality and communication among bishops and with those below them are at best limited. “It’s a toxic condition because bishops can become individually isolated— and isolated first and foremost from each other,” acknowledged Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark. “And when that happens, it’s difficult to call each other to accountability.” What’s more, there are not structures in place to ensure Church leaders hear with candor the needs or expertise of the laity, let alone the anguish and righteous anger of those who have been sexually abused, their families, and communities. Cardinal Tobin went on to speak about the need for all the baptized to be part of the solution to the crises. “We’re certainly looking to other people to help us.”

Without being in touch and hearing from others, a pernicious culture of clericalism results in a mentality and actions in which clergy see themselves as separate from Catholics and put themselves or the institution ahead of the wellbeing of their fellow faithful. Clericalism is seen by many as pervasive in the Church today and Pope Francis has asked Catholics to purge it in all its forms. In an article by Bishop Shawn McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City, MO clericalism occurs when a member of the clergy – be it bishop, priest, or deacon – uses his position in the Church for personal gain. Among its forms are a pastor who makes an important decision for the parish without proper consultation, or a bishop who opts not to be transparent about a matter involving sexual abuse in the Church and attempts to minimize its traumatic effects on victims.

Kim Daniels


Indeed, the twin crises has demonstrated to many that silence is no longer an option, and that the strategy most urgently needed today is transparency, to tell the truth, without shame or misgivings. That point was driven home poignantly by John Carr, founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. A one-time seminarian and survivor of clergy abuse who has discussed the subject publicly and in intense dialogues with students, Carr noted, “Silence is not an option for any of us. While it may be true that children are more safe in the Catholic community because of the protections that have been put in place…it is also true that the episcopal culture, the secrecy that allowed, abetted, aided, enabled (the abuse crisis) is still in place in too many ways.”


Transforming the Culture

Many of the clergy and laity at the Summit believed that clericalism and a lack of transparency, accountability, and co-responsible governance are among the root causes of the Church’s current plight. Many felt, therefore, that a new culture that addresses these root causes and provides more transparency, accountability and co-responsibility are the necessary pathways forward. Not only are new structures needed to move bishops beyond their isolation and unilateral decision-making, but to improve the relationship and communications between bishops, priests, and laity.

Cardinal Cupich explained Pope Francis’ vision for this foundational change: inverting the current organizational pyramid that keeps a bishop isolated at the top. Instead, the exercise of authority should be about building a capacity for participation and involvement of Catholics from all walks of life who are willing to apply their gifts and skills to the benefit of the Church. The Holy Father has pointed to the concept of “synodality” as a way to transform the culture. Cardinal Cupich elaborated that leaders should “not see ourselves as serving by governing, but governing by serving, and allowing people’s gifts to come to the surface. I think it’s really important for us to move in that direction and to realize… there are experiences that ordinary people have in their daily lives that can help us. So we shouldn’t be writing documents on healthcare, war and peace, racism, and human sexuality without having broad conversations with people about their own experiences, because we don’t have those experiences.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap.


There is no underestimating the role and expertise of the laity, as well as the importance of transparency, accountability, and co-responsibility to a new culture of servant leadership and management for the Church. Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley perhaps said it best for Summit attendees by describing the challenge he faced on being named Archbishop of Boston in 2003, at a time of economic troubles triggered by the sexual abuse crisis within the archdiocese. “It was only because of the lay advisory groups that came together that we have been able to recover from that,” he declared. “And one of the things that we embraced coming out of this was transparency.” It is due to clergy and laity working together, that they have begun to make significant strides towards recovery and reform.




Achieving Accountability in the New Culture

Bishops need to accept the leadership failures and cover up that contributed to the twin crises.

There has been a failure to call bishops to accountability, rewarding compliance over talent, maturity, and experience. There is a need for leadership development and support at all levels.

  1. Identify the twin crises as the number one priority for Church funding and resourcing immediately and for the next five years
  • Commit to a preferential option for abuse victims and families; keep survivors, families and affected parishioners at all levels of decision-making, including when developing best practices
  • Publicly and collectively acknowledge the leadership failure and cover-up
  • Create ministerial codes of conduct that recognize abuse of power not only against children, but also adults


  1. Create structures to ensure a new culture of accountability
  • Commit to a framework for action with appropriate structures to address the multi-layered crisis, provide consultative groups the authority they need to do their work effectively
  • Create a governance structure that is transparent with layered checks, balances, and oversight, and includes the expertise of the laity at the parish, diocesan, and national level
  • Commit to and invest in creating a new culture of leadership and management that is transparent, accountable, and grounded in best practices and proactive in including lay leadership and co-responsibility
  • Modify canon law to provide authority to bishop conferences to address local realities and update canon law to include a detailed and clearly defined list of punishments for clearly defined crimes of abuse or cover up, covering all clergy, religious, and laity
  • Require best practices in human resources: effective selection, training, assignment, evaluation, compensation, and continuing education
  • Provide vocation directors with better training and develop national standards relating to clergy selection and abuse prevention
  • Make the bishop selection process more transparent, utilizing a genuine discernment process that includes laity and clergy and takes into consideration the potential bishop’s experience in dealing with abuse


  1. Implement stronger formation programs for bishops and clergy
  • Develop and invest in ongoing formation programs in management and leadership to train clergy, religious, and laity, including bishops
  • Explore different models of training for new bishops
  • Develop a mentoring system for bishops
  • Invest in lay formation at all levels
  • Develop and invest in long-term leadership, management, and formation programs to train bishops, priests, and lay leaders
  • Revise the Plan for Priestly Formation and seminary curriculum to address the root causes of clericalism by equipping priests with skills in shared leadership, transparency, and accountability
  • Rethink models of seminary formation to address disparities between institutions
  • Revise the theology of priesthood and priestly identity to reflect servant leadership


Achieving Co-responsibility in the New Culture

Laity and clergy are co-responsible in leadership in the Church. Synodality is a necessary characteristic of the response.

  1. Put in place mechanisms for greater synodality among bishops, among bishops and priests, among clergy and laity
  2. Convene a national working group of clergy and lay experts to help write a Code of Conduct for bishops and ensure the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People includes bishops
  3. Involve women in initial and ongoing clergy formation
  4. Consult with other denominations to learn about their processes of bishop accountability and co-responsibility


Achieving Transparency in the New Culture

Silence is no longer an option; there is an urgent need for bishops to act now and demonstrate transparent leadership.

  1. Provide consistent, transparent, and coordinated communications at all levels – parish, diocesan, USCCB, and Vatican
  2. Establish a crisis communications plan for the USCCB, train Catholic leaders in best practices in communications, and develop a proactive plan for restoring trust


This piece was originally published in the 2019 Catholic Leadership Summit Report.

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