ROME – A scandal’s impact can be measured multiple ways, with the most obvious being the toll it takes in terms of bad press, litigation and settlements, declining attendance or market share, as well as disillusionment and outrage among the rank and file.
What’s often harder to assess is the opportunity cost – what else might an institution have done, had its energies not been focused on putting out its own fires?
That seems an especially pressing question in the United States right now with regard to the Catholic Church, which seems largely to be sitting out two important political fights in which it otherwise might have been a protagonist.
The first concerns a Trump administration move to avoid court-imposed time limits on the detention of immigrant children, adopting regulations that essentially would permit almost indefinite detention of minors together with their families as cases wind their way through often ponderous and backlogged immigration courts.
The new regulation, which would cast aside 20 years of judicial oversight of detention, is a reflection of frustration that immigrants from Central America are continuing to wash into the United States, fleeing poverty and violence, in part because those immigrants realize their children will not be incarcerated long even if they’re caught.
According to a recent piece in the New York Times, more immigrant children are behind bars in the United States right now than in any previously recorded period. The current number is 12,800, according to the Times report, a four-fold increase from 2,400 in 2017.
For at least the last couple of decades, courts have insisted upon only relatively brief periods of detention for children, often citing the “Flores settlement” from 1985 that required release after 20 days. Those rulings were based on studies of the long-term physical and psychological harm inflicted on children by being held in jail-like conditions for extended periods.
Critics of the new regulation are almost certain to challenge it in court, but in the meantime indefinite detention is already, de facto, the new normal.
On another front, President Donald Trump is openly rejecting a recent analysis of the death toll in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria last year, insisting that “3,000 people did not die” and that the new estimate, which has been officially accepted by the Puerto Rican government and by legislators of both parties, has been cooked up by Democrats to make him look bad.
That estimate, carried out by researchers at George Washington University, compared death rates during and after the hurricane to what would have been expected under normal circumstances, and found an increase of 2,975 additional mortalities.
Trump’s dismissal of the estimate on Twitter brought a rebuke from the Puerto Rican government and objections from various American politicians, including a few members of his own party.
Regardless of the precise number, the dispute offers a reminder of concerns about the administration’s response to the disaster and the ongoing difficulties in Puerto Rico to rebuild, which most experts attribute to decades of chronic poverty and neglect.
In both cases, these are issues where one would have expected the U.S. bishops to step up and be heard.
They’ve been among the most vocal critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policies from the beginning, often using remarkably sharp language. They’re condemned “bigotry,” “fear and intolerance,” and called various administration policies on immigration “alarming,” “devastating” and “injurious.”
Granted, most of the time the bishops haven’t been able to do a great deal to get in Trump’s way, but they’ve at least sustained a national debate about the morality of these policies in a way few other actors in America are able to do, and they’ve also given the Trump team at least some small reason to think twice about the “religious vote.”
Similarly on Puerto Rico, the U.S. bishops might have been expected to underline the need for doing greater justice to the island over the long haul, in part out of solidarity with Archbishop Roberto González Nieves of San Juan and the rest of the Church’s leadership there.
In part, of course, the bishops have been outspoken on these issues because the people affected are mostly Catholic. Most estimates put the Catholic share of Puerto Rico’s population, for instance, at 70 percent, which would mean roughly 2,000 of the deaths attributed to Hurricane Maria were among Catholics.
More broadly, the U.S. bishops have long styled themselves as a voice of conscience in national affairs, drawing on the tradition of Catholic social teaching.
For the last month, however, the bishops haven’t been engaging public policy questions at all, because they’ve been consumed by the internal fallout of the crisis created by the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and a bombshell accusation from a former papal ambassador that even Pope Francis covered up for McCarrick.
Any attempt right now by the bishops to exercise moral leadership would not only bring scorn and ridicule, it might well backfire, as their unpopularity could rub off on whatever cause they’re trying to advocate.
One way of assessing the opportunity cost of the current meltdown, therefore, is this: There may be more victims of the clerical sexual abuse crisis than we previously knew, in the form of 12,800 children behind bars who might have had the bishops as their voice, and who instead find themselves listening to the sounds of silence.