Twenty years ago the Catholic Church embarked upon a painful process of transformation after appalling stories of sexual abuse came to light, first in the United States and then elsewhere. It was not only the crimes of priests who abused minors, but the even greater scandal of cover-ups of those crimes by bishops.

Hence the global demands for the openness, transparency and accountability which are basic requirements of civil law and which have been included in canon law only recently.

Truth and justice are supposed to be hard-wired into the Catholic Church. Why did the system fail? This is what my colleague Rolando Montes de Oca and I examine in Transparency and Secrecy Within the Catholic Church.

If information is power, secrecy is also power. Those who govern civil, military, and religious institutions have always known this. Transparency leads to exposing one’s vulnerability and makes one open to attack.

The right to information within the Church on the part of the faithful and the general public has not yet been formalized. This gap is only partially filled by Church media offices; its general principles should be incorporated into Church law.

Apart from finances, no general obligation of accountability existed in the Catholic Church. After a gigantic cover-up of abuse in Chile was exposed, Pope Francis set downward accountability as an index of good governance and abuse prevention. Downward accountability must be an essential aspect of the Church’s identity. Far from undermining the authority of bishops and superiors, it strengthens it by protecting people from misinformation and manipulation. It prevents corruption and invigorates institutional life.

A private organization like a school or a company is accountable primarily to its stakeholders. It is required to report to the public only in cases of legitimate public interest. However, with 1.5 billion members, the Catholic Church is much more than a private organization.  That is why it so obviously needs to be open.  

A dismal history of sexual abuse scandals shows that external audits and independent commissions of inquiry can be useful. Too often the rule that “dirty laundry should be washed at home” has been an excuse for paralysis or subterfuge.  

Investigative reporting, such as the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning exposé of sex abuse, has rubbed the Church’s nose in the dirt – but sadly, that was what was needed to right terrible wrongs. However, not all investigators are competent and even-handed.

The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in Australia and the John Jay Report in the United States were thorough and fair. The Australian Church accepted 98 percent of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.

But similar reports in France and Germany have been disgraceful. Independence is not enough; reports need to be objective and professional, not ideologically driven.

I am critical of the French report for several reasons. But one of the main ones is simply that it lacks data. The figures given for victims of child sexual abuse make for lurid headlines, but they are basically extrapolations and estimates. A report without verifiable data is a hatchet-job, not a report. The Catholic Church in France is paying for the economic, reputational and spiritual cost of this initiative.

We all agree on the principles. We all want a Church that is open; that listens; that does not see victims as problems; that values the contributions of the laity; that respects women; that is not elitist. In fact, these principles are already part of the Church’s law. But laws alone do not change relationships in the Church. In our book we discuss how to create effective communication with our stakeholders, both external and internal and how to create upward and downward accountability.

Implementing the principles of transparency and confidentiality requires fairness and prudence. The slogans of “full transparency” and “zero tolerance” have also been used to bludgeon innocent people. The list of men whose reputations have been trashed and who have subsequently been exonerated is not short — Cardinal George Pell, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop Michel Aupetit

In the Church’ governance we have seen gross abuses of secrecy. But abuse of transparency is equally problematic. It can destroy reputations and undermine the basic legal and moral principle of presumption of innocence. Determining guilt in courts of justice takes months or years; determining guilt in the court of Twitter is immediate – and there is no court of appeal.

I see transparency as a leadership style which respects openness. It has to be a relationship where there is no place for doublespeak.

After the latest reforms, it is clear that Church leaders are not only accountable to God, but also to canon law. No authority can regard itself as above the law. Negligence, cover-ups and lack of accountability are punishable. There is no turning back from this more transparent and accountable form of government. Co-responsibility with the laity and bringing talented men and women on board, are key to this transformation.

We need talented leaders in the Church. But this is no easier than it is in politics. The job description for a bishop seems all but impossible. We want bishops  to be wise judges; to be shrewd investors; to be prudent managers; to be empathetic and available pastors; to be doctrinally sound; to be inspiring preachers … Holiness, which ought to be primary, comes as an afterthought.

The fact that the Catholic Church is hierarchical by divine mandate is not the problem. Canon law for the whole Church and the constitutions of particular institutions within it function as a brake on authoritarianism or personal rule.

The problem is disregard of the dimension of service in exercising authority. As Pope Francis has warned so often, clericalism and elitism corrupt authority.

Within Church circles nowadays, there is much talk of “synodality” as a new way of an “ecclesiology of communion” which will guarantee openness, active participation, accountability and shared responsibility in the future. But all this will be empty chatter unless leaders are not committed to both organizational and personal renewal. Good laws and new procedures will be a dead letter without personal holiness.

Transparency and Secrecy Within the Catholic Church
by Jordi Pujol Soler and Rolando Montes de Oca, Midwest Theological Forum, 2022

Fr Jordi Pujol is a Catholic priest from Barcelona. He is an associate professor of media ethics and law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and associate editor of the journal Church,...