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Why don’t Catholic leaders who screw up just say they’re sorry?

A clergy member prepares for a noon Mass at Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington in October. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Recent days have seen calls for greater accountability from top-ranked U.S. Catholic clerics. First, a former priest revealed that D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has been untruthful about what he knew of sexual misconduct allegations against his predecessor as archbishop, Theodore McCarrick. Then on Monday, there were new calls for McCarrick himself to publicly repent for alleged abuse of youths and adults.

These past few days have prompted a basic question: Why can’t these clerics just say they’re sorry?

It’s a particular conundrum for those of us who are Catholic. The sacrament of reconciliation provides us with the opportunity to confess our sins to a priest, apologize for them, make amends and resolve to do better. When many of us prepared to practice the sacrament for the first time as children just reaching the age of reason, we were taught that lying was a sin. As we moved into adolescence, we learned that any sexual activity outside of marriage was likewise a sin. So why are our confessors finding it so hard to apologize for these very same basic sins?

Despite denials, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl knew of sexual misconduct allegations against Theodore McCarrick and reported them to Vatican

Having worked for the Roman Catholic Church for the past 25 years, I think it may have something to do with the dramatic change in the status of religious leaders in my lifetime.

Growing up in the Boston of the 1970s and early 1980s, where neighborhoods were still divided along the parish boundary lines despite a growing presence of non-Catholic immigrants from around the world, great respect and even reverence were directed toward the parish priest and his assistant clergymen. These men could do no wrong. They were arbiters of grace, and their Sunday evening visits for family dinners demanded the use of the best china. The church itself taught that the members of the clergy are in their very being different because of their ordination (in the church we use the term “ontological”). While they look like any layperson, there is a fundamental difference in their being. The church still teaches this today.

I remember the shock I felt when, as a teenager, I first encountered a priest who swore, or told an off-color joke, or smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. In the end, it really was not that hard to find all of these peccadilloes in the priests I encountered in my parish or my Jesuit high school, but the result was a certain diminishment of the clergy in my eyes. The image of a superman was tarnished. As we now know, there were many much more serious sins and crimes being committed by Catholic clergy in that same place and time, but I had no personal experience of that.

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Fast-forward to 2019, and one would be hard-pressed to find a lay Catholic who puts his or her priest on such a pedestal. We have been jaded by the scandals of the church in Boston, and now we are experiencing a crisis of leadership locally. Keep in mind that McCarrick was ordained to the priesthood in 1958 and Wuerl in 1966, and so their respective climbs to become princes of the church took place in the “Father Knows Best” milieu of an earlier time in this country.

Sure, institutional fear of costly litigation enters in, and perhaps that is really what is preventing Wuerl from being as candid as he might like. But it is also true that we might be asking both Wuerl and McCarrick to do something that priests and bishops of their time were never expected to do. If Father was always right, an apology was never needed — especially not if you wielded the additional power and authority of a bishop.

Bishops will tell you that their power and authority come to them through the Scriptures and the tradition of the church. None of us will ever be in a position to know or judge the private prayer lives of these men, the sins they themselves confess as they do penance nor the things they discuss with their spiritual directors and companions. We are left to hope that Wuerl, in receiving the sacrament of reconciliation himself from a brother priest, did not leave his knowledge of McCarrick’s actions completely unvoiced. Should his confessor have suggested public disclosure of the same? Well, Scripture does tell us that the truth will set you free.

Time and again, we have seen examples of Americans being willing to forgive people who have let them down.

This week, a spokesman for the Catholic community Opus Dei made an unusually frank — for a faith group — admission of guilt and shame after it was forced to publicly confirm it paid nearly $1 million in a sex misconduct suit for celeb-priest C. John McCloskey and covered it up — leaving him in the same D.C. assignment for a year after the victim came forward before removing him quietly.

“The reality is he was around for a year after we were informed,” spokesman Brian Finnerty said. “That’s the reality. It’s not good. But we may as well own it. . . . It’s an argument that is no longer tenable — this 'let’s quiet things over so priests can continue to do good.’ ”

Within the past few years, some local Catholic institutions, most affiliated with the Jesuit religious order but not exclusively so, have looked at their own sad involvement in the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries and have apologized publicly for their complicity. My alma mater, Georgetown University, in 2017 stripped the names of two Jesuit leaders who traded in slaves in 1838 off some of the newest buildings on campus and renamed them for the first slave named on the university’s bill of sale (Isaac Hawkins) and a black educator who founded a girls’ school in the Georgetown neighborhood in that era (Anne Marie Becraft). The university also invited more than 100 of the slaves’ descendants to the renaming ceremony and offered them scholarship opportunities to study at the school.

At the ceremony, the Rev. Timothy Kesicki spoke directly to these men and women as resident of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States: “Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned. We pray with you today because we are profoundly sorry.”

Simple words spoken with great conviction — not a burdensome expectation, really.

Mike Goggin was assistant director for the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington for nine years and is now the regional director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.