The added value of bishops resigning

In the final weeks of last year, at least two prominent Dutch politicians – Deputy Prime Minister Maxime Verhagen (a Catholic, pictured)  and SGP party leader Kees van der Staaij (Reformed Protestant) – have suggested that it would be a good thing if one or more Dutch bishops would resign in the wake of the Deetman report. While both men received a certain amount of criticism for a perceived breach of the separation of Church and state, I think it’s more interesting to take these sentiments seriously. Not to say that I agree with them (I don’t), but they are interesting to look into.

We’ve seen it happen in Ireland, where several bishops resigned following conclusions about their conduct in handling abuse cases under their jurisdiction. These things are not unprecedented, but neither are they without context and reason. Although, as the Dutch bishops have confirmed, a bishop inherits a certain responsibility from his predecessor because of the fact that he is a bishop, they, like everyone else, can not be held responsible for the actions of another man. If one bishop mishandled specific cases of abuse, another bishop can’t be legally blamed for it, although he has a moral responsibility as shepherd and prelate of the Church.

A hypothetical resignation of any Dutch bishop, to atone for actions that were or were not taken under another man’s watch, would be meaningless, in my opinion. Other acts of atonement for the Church as a whole, or the diocese of which a bishop is the shepherd, can be far more effective and meaningful.

Simply looking at the numbers, it is unlikely (though of course not impossible) that any of the sitting bishops in the Netherlands will be found guilty of gross misconduct. The vast majority of them were not bishops when the peak of the abuse cases occurred. This is something that the media often seems to forget, that the bishops of the 1960s and 70s are not the same men as today.

A far more important consideration in this matter is that a bishop can be far more effective in working towards a solution if he stays in office. And here we must consider what a bishop is. Unlike what many want us to believe, he is not the CEO of a major company. A CEO may, sometimes even should, resign if stocks fall, production drops and profit plummets. A bishop is a father for the faithful in his diocese. And, to borrow a simile from somewhere else, who has heard of a father severing all contact with his family when some disaster happens? Exactly then it is a father’s duty to stay with his family, protect them, and help them in dealing with whatever horror has afflicted them (and him as well, of course). That is also what Bishop Gerard de Korte said in an interview on 17 December:

“I don’t think the victims are waiting for the resignation of a bishop, but rather that the current bishops act in such a way that they will be helped. What matters now is that we try to stand by the victims and act adequately.”

If a bishop were to resign, we should have a good answer to the question “why?” And then we must ask what good this resignation will bring. In the meantime, we must ask, inspire and pray for our bishops to do what is right, as fathers of the local church.

Photo credit: ANP