Skip to main content


Church-government structure: A neglected focus of the debate

It was A small group of New Hampshire Roman Catholics, but what they did managed to make the Associated Press news wire late last year. Members of New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership petitioned the Vatican to remove New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian from office.

The group cited accusations that the two leaders helped cover up the crimes of abusive priests when they served under former Cardinal Bernard Law of Massachusetts: "The effectiveness of these bishops as teachers of the faith has been unspeakably compromised by their hypocrisy and bad example."

Their petition was newsworthy, however, not only because of its relation to the clergy sex-abuse scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church. The simple request for a voice in the selection of leaders was by itself revolutionary, and it should raise an aspect of the scandal that has not received much attention: whether an episcopal form of government played a role in the crisis.

Every religious group has priests or pastors who turn out to be scoundrels, but this scandal is especially appalling because of the way that parts of the church hierarchy dealt with abusive priests. Instead of exercising discipline, some bishops shuttled abusive priests from parish to parish, hiding their crimes and allowing the priests to abuse minors again and again.

Such behavior happened under a church-government structure that places personnel decisions solely in the hands of a hierarchy, but there's been little discussion of that system during the sex-abuse scandal. Even victims' groups have rarely questioned the church hierarchy's authority to select leaders of local parishes.

But church-government structures were hotly debated during the 16th-century Reformation, with many Protestants turning to congregational or presbyterian systems in which members vote on their leaders. (Other Protestants, such as Anglicans, retained the episcopal system.)

The Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandal fits the pattern that concerned the Reformers: Abusive priests-unexamined and unelected by local congregations-were intruded into unsuspecting churches. Some of those involved in scandalous behavior, instead of coming under the discipline and care of churches, were actually put in charge of churches, even after repeated offenses. Church members had no way of knowing what kind of leader they would have to follow, and the result was often disastrous for their children.

Shouldn't the episcopal system, under which the scandalous behavior took place, at least be part of the discussion surrounding the scandal? Perhaps that system's Catholic and Protestant defenders can mount strong arguments, but-amazingly-news media haven't required them to do so.

Timothy Lamer

Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor of WORLD Magazine.