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Are bishops instrumentalizing the clerical abuse crisis?

The bishops of Switzerland continue to battle the fallout of a sexual abuse crisis in their country.

On Saturday, the president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Felix Gmür of Basle gave an interview to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, stressing the bishops’ commitment to institutional reform after an independent report found evidence of mishandling and covering up of clerical abuse cases across Swiss dioceses. 

Bishop Felix Gmür of Basle. Pillar file photo.

Promising that lessons had been learned from the current scandal, Gmür, who along with several other Swiss bishops has faced calls for his resignation, went further than promising new processes and policies, however. 

The bishop used the interview, and the fallout of the crisis, to call for an end to clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, and for the Church to adopt a “new sexual morality.” The bishop also promised to press the case for these reforms in Rome next month at the meeting for the synod on synodality.


While Gmür’s statements were controversial in their content and contentious in relation to Church teaching, they form part of a now well-established pattern as clerical abuse crises ripple out after the initial wave in the United States.

But as bishops and other Church figures continue to call for major doctrinal and disciplinary changes in response to clerical sexual abuse, there remains no demonstrated link to the problems they would purport to address. 

Instead, the bishops comments seem to reflect a now settled acceptance of clerical sexual abuse as an issue which can be instrumentalized to push a separate reform agenda. 

How far that agenda will get in the upcoming synod depends almost entirely on Pope Francis.

In his interview, published this weekend, Bishop Gmür began by defending the Swiss bishops’ handling of abuse cases in recent decades, pointing to procedural reforms passed by the conference in 2002, when the issue first came to global attention following the Spotlight scandal in the United States.

These policies have been “continually improved over the years and aligned with reality,” the bishop said, as he touted additional measures which he had brought in in his own Diocese of Basle.

“That's why there are fewer cases of abuse than before,” the bishop said.

Having to defend the success of relatively recent reforms while accepting accountability for wider past failings is an experience with which many bishops can sympathize. And it is true that in countries which have implemented new procedures in the last 20 years, like the United States, instances of clerical sexual abuse have fallen. 

However, another experience the Swiss bishops are now sharing with their American counterparts is a renewed crisis, born less of misconduct by priests and more of episcopal negligence or misconduct.

Those problems, which became acute in the wake of the 2018 scandals of Theodore McCarrick and the Chilean bishops’ conference, were addressed at a global level by Pope Francis the following year, with a summit of episcopal conference leadership and the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi, which introduced new norms and penalties for episcopal misconduct.

But while those norms have since been updated, and continue to be used and invoked by the Vatican as the Church’s key response to crises like that now engulfing the Swiss bishops, they did not feature in Gmür’s interview. 

Instead, the bishop called for further study to “clarify” whether clerical celibacy is “causally responsible for the problem” of abuse, or if the discipline “attracts people who have a problem on that level.”

It is an odd question for the bishop to seek clarity on, given that it has been examined at some length in different countries over the last two decades. In no case has a link between priestly celibacy and child sexual abuse been shown. 

On the contrary, the implied thesis that married priests would be less likely to offend, or that likely offenders would be less drawn to the priesthood if they were allowed to marry, does has repeatedly been set against the reality of abuse of minors by married men in other contexts, including in the family, in schools, and in youth groups like the Boy Scouts.

It’s also strange that the bishop should be seeking “clarity” on clerical celibacy, since he already seems to have made up his mind on the discipline. 

“The time has come to abolish the requirement of celibacy,” he told the newspaper, saying that it is a “symbol no longer understood by society.”

Of course, Western priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline and the bishop is more than entitled to his opinions about it, even if they diverge from Pope Francis’ own stated position. 

But the way the bishop presents his thoughts might seem to some — especially abuse survivors — as a kind of instrumentalization of their experiences. Having made his own mind up that celibacy should end, Gmür’s calls for “clarity” on the discipline’s supposed (and unsupported) link to abuse of minors could look to many as though he sees their suffering as a potentially useful support for his own agenda.

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The same could also be said for Gmür’s full-throated call for the sacramental ordination of women, which he also made in the interview. 

“I am in favor of the ordination of women,” he told the newspaper. “The subordination of women in the Catholic Church is incomprehensible to me. Changes are needed there.”

Similar calls for the Church to ordain women — which Pope Francis has reiterated the Church has no power to do — have been made by leading prelates in Germany, together with calls to end clerical celibacy. 

Those same calls have been made in the context of the German “synodal way,” of course, which was itself inaugurated as an institutional response to the sexual abuse scandals in that country, the lack of supporting evidence for either as and answer to abuse notwithstanding.

The distance of the German synodal way has put between its conclusions and the sexual abuse crisis there is now as great as the gap between its process and true synodality. In place of both, the country’s Catholic leaders have taken to offering a more sweeping vision for ecclesiastical reform, one which embraces a new sacramental theology, a new sexual morality, and a new, explicitly democratic and decentralized approach to Church governance. 

And, with the exception of the synodal way’s chief critic, Cardinal Woelki of Cologne, it’s also notable that German bishops, like Cardinal Marx of Munich or Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, have tended to call loudest for progressive change when under closest scrutiny for personal missteps in handling of abuse cases.

That German metamorphosis took several years to fully unfold, taking in the whole of the synodal way’s lifespan as well as the meeting of the synod of bishops on the Amazon, in which German voices were loud participants. 

Along the way, German bishops and synodal organizers were clear they saw themselves as setting an example to be copied, and an agenda they hoped would be taken up elsewhere. That seems now to have become a settled pattern, including the deployment of radical proposals unrelated to sexual abuse when under fire.

Asked on Saturday if clerical sexual abuse was evidence of a “a messed up sexual morality [in church teaching] that neither recognizes homosexuality nor remarriage and requires celibacy from priests,” Bishop Gmür agreed, and pivoted to setting himself in opposition to Rome on all these points.

“I am at odds [with the Vatican] here because we are embedded in the universal Church, which has its rules that we also have to adhere to,” he said. “In Rome I will campaign for the Church to decentralize. The Pope always talks about this, but until now I haven't noticed much of it. We need a new sexual morality and the opportunity to make our regulations regionally.”

Gmür also promised that the issue of women’s ordination “will also be a topic at the synod that will soon take place in Rome.”

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The bishop’s veiled barb at Pope Francis for “always talking” about decentralizing but failing to deliver truly radical reform echoed similar criticisms from the German synodal leadership following the Amazon synod.

But if the Swiss is now following his German colleagues in calling for a more democratic Church, and pointing to the synod as the vehicle for ushering in doctrinal changes, it is not clear how seriously he expects this to happen.

Pope Francis has explicitly and repeatedly affirmed his commitment to clerical celibacy, reiterated the impossibility of ordaining women priests, and decried the notion that the synod is a ecclesiological Trojan horse to smuggle in doctrinal democracy.

At the same time, the pope has declined to confront German dioceses as they bring in blessings for same-sex unions and in Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez appointed a new Vatican doctrinal chief who has signaled his openness to the kind of “new sexual morality” Gmür has called for.

Francis has also listened without response as senior prelates like Cardinal Robert McElroy have insisted that settled doctrinal matters, like the ordination of women, are up for debate at the synod. 

The pope, then, seems to be walking into a synodal session next month with one distinct wing of the Church publicly committed to making the event something the pope has said he doesn’t want, but apparently not willing to do anything about it.

For many synod-watchers, this smacks of conspiracy. Francis, according to increasingly popular reasoning, is setting up an inevitable result, one which he can say he didn’t intent or plan or call for, and about which the actual global body of the faithful and the college of bishops were not consulted, but which the synodal organizers will spin as a new sensus fidei and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

That theory, of course, depends on the pope having consciously organized a global synod under false pretenses while assuring the faithful repeatedly and publicly of the contrary. 

Alleging an historic level of duplicity by a pope might be a populist and increasingly popular narrative in a polarized Church, but it remains an unprovable and unfalsifiable thesis until Francis is actually handed a synodal document which contradicts his own stated vision.

Until then, bishops like Gmür will likely continue to use the still-unfolding abuse scandals at home to push for radical reform in Rome. 

How well that works to deflect criticism of themselves in their own countries may largely be a function of media reaction.

Press reaction will also likely help shape how well that same tactic works at setting the agenda at the upcoming synod. But even media ordinarily supportive of calls for radical progressive reform could shift, if survivors and their advocates become vocal in denouncing the instrumentalization of abuse reform for a different set of priorities.

As criticism continues to mount from all sides in Rome over the handling of the Marko Rupnik scandal, bishops like Gmür may find that cloaking a progressivist agenda under the suffering of victims isn’t as effective as it has been.

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