A New Culture of Catholic Leadership Is Emerging

By: Kim Smolik

September 25, 2019

The Role of Theology and Organizational Structure in Addressing Clergy Sexual Abuse

Bishop Shawn McKnight stepped into leadership of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri just a few months before abuse revelations by former cardinal McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report reignited the national conversation on the crisis of abuse and leadership failures.

As Catholics felt the sting of betrayal by Church leaders, Bishop McKnight wrote a powerful article last summer, saying “I want to work together with you, all the people of the Diocese...My role as your diocesan bishop, fundamentally, is to foster the communion of the Diocese; in so doing, I am your servant.”

He embraced that servant leadership by holding listening sessions and advocating at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for laity to be involved “at all levels of the Church” in response to the crisis. Moreover, he made a commitment to financial transparency and publicly shared how much the diocese has spent caring for abuse survivors and providing sustenance to clergy removed from ministry for abuse. Additionally, he has requested that all religious orders that wish to continue serving in the diocese publish the names of their credibly accused members.

The Urgency for a New Culture of Leadership

Bishop McKnight and other Catholic leaders are modeling a new culture of leadership rooted in reformed structures. The future of the Church depends on it.

A recent Pew survey shows that 27% of Catholics in the United States have reduced Mass attendance and 26% have reduced their level of financial giving. Moreover, a Gallup poll shows that only 30% of Catholics in the United States have a “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the bishops and other Catholic leaders. 

It has become clear to many Catholics that we need to address not only the issue of abuse, but also the current leadership culture and structures that perpetuate it. This summer, more leadership failures came to light with the news that former Bishop Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston was found to have engaged in sexual harassment and financial malfeasance. 

Pope Francis named this harmful culture in our Church “clericalism” in his "Letter to the People of God." He declared that clericalism “leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say 'no' to abuse is to say an emphatic 'no' to all forms of clericalism.”

What is the way forward?

The Pope went on to say, “The only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God.”

Indeed, a new culture of leadership requires all of us. It requires conversion of heart, but also the conversion of the culture and corresponding structures that perpetuate clericalism. 

Clergy and laity are working together with the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference to identify new models of governance and leadership culture. Their working group was formed in response to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which studied the abuse crisis in the country and discovered the dangerous interplay of a culture of clericalism with governance structures that do not promote accountability, transparency, or meaningful lay involvement. 

The Commission report notes: 

Diocesan bishops have not been sufficiently accountable to any other body for decision-making in their handling of allegations of child sexual abuse or alleged perpetrators. There has been no requirement for their decisions to be made transparent or subject to due process.

The report goes on to say, “The exclusion of lay people and women from leadership positions in the Catholic Church may have contributed to inadequate responses to child sexual abuse.” 

It recommends that the Catholic Church in Australia explore ways in which its “structures and practices of governance may be made more accountable, more transparent, more meaningfully consultative and more participatory, including at the diocesan and parish level.” 

Similarly, Leadership Roundtable published a report in the United States that cites a need for accountability, transparency, and co-responsibility between clergy and laity. The report contains recommendations from a convening of bishops, abuse experts, theologians, canon lawyers, and other senior Catholic leaders. 

Such recommendations for a new culture of leadership and new structures—from Australia, the United States, and other countries—are essential for the Catholic Church across the globe as we seek to heal and restore the body of Christ. The Church we know today has strayed far from Jesus’ model of servant leadership. 

Is there hope that Catholic leaders will put aside the privilege of clericalism in order to lead with accountability, transparency, and co-responsibility?

From where I stand, there are glimpses of a new leadership culture—and governance structures to support it—emerging in dioceses like Jefferson City, where bishops and other Catholic leaders are taking seriously Jesus’ model of servant leadership and putting it into practice.

Jesus showed us the way forward. The Church can heal and restore trust among the body of believers if we follow Jesus’ example.

Opens in a new window