A LAST CHANCE
Can America’s bishops end the sex-abuse crisis?
BY JEFFERY L. SHELER
T he twice-yearly meetings of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops tend to be quiet events. Not so this time around. When the 285 prelates assemble in a hotel ballroom in Dallas, Texas later this week, July, 2002, the world will be watching, anxious to see whether the nation’s top Catholic churchmen will find a way out of a protracted scandal of sexual abuse and managerial malfeasance that is tearing at the church’s seams.
The sole item of business before the bishops is a plan to rid the priesthood of child molesters and to halt the shuffling of accused priests from parish to parish. With so much at stake, say church leaders, adoption of the plan in one form or other is a foregone conclusion. Yet very few see it as a silver bullet that will immediately halt the crisis. Some question whether confidence in the hierarchy—shaken by repeated patterns of abuse, complicity, and coverup—can, in fact, ever be fully restored. “This is their last chance to get it right,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit journal. New disclosures of past abuses and coverups are likely to emerge for months, if not years, church leaders concede, and lawsuits that already number in the hundreds are certain to multiply. Even so, for the thousands of faithful who have been hurt by the scandal, the Dallas gathering will be an occasion of hope.
The faithful. Church leaders and laity alike say they are pleased by the central role lay members would play under the plan in monitoring sex-abuse policies. And it may mean even greater lay involvement in church decision-making in general. Grass-roots organizations of Catholic laity demanding a greater voice in church governance are already sprouting in city after city. One group, Voice of the Faithful, began in Boston’s suburbs in February, 2002 with about 40 people and now claims upwards of 10,000 members throughout the country. “We see the pedophilia crisis as a symptom of a greater crisis in the church,” says Svea Fraser, 55, of Wellesley, Mass., one of the founding members, “and that’s this whole culture of secrecy and lack of accountability . . . which has been debilitating to both laity and the hierarchy.”
Yet as angry and hurt as many Catholics are, surprisingly few talk about leaving the church. Many, like Janet Murphy, who was raised Catholic and attends mass several times a week at Mother of God Catholic Church in Denver, are happy with their local clergy. “Monsignor Jones is everything you could want in a parish priest,” she says. “I can’t see myself leaving the church as long as there’s a Monsignor Jones around.”
Others say the people, not the hierarchy, are the real church. “I’ve always been aware of the human frailty of the leadership even if they haven’t been,” says David Fortier, a Bristol, Conn., Catholic. “I can separate the institution, the people who run it, from my faith.” But Fortier says he worries about the impact the scandal is having on his teenage children. “With them, the church just looks foolish,” he says. “They ask, ‘Why would we want to be a part of this?’ “ Many priests in the trenches, like the Rev. John Cregan, pastor of Our Lady of Angels in Cleveland, are hoping the bishops will crack down hard on sexual abusers. “Hopefully,” says Cregan, “it will restore faith in the priests who are out there doing a good job.”
Among other things, the proposed rules call for mandatory removal of any priest who sexually abuses children in the future, or who has abused more than once in the past, or who is diag nosed a pedophile. “Our foremost goal is to protect children and young people,” Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, head of the panel that drafted the plan, said last week. “One essential way to do that is to say clearly, ‘If you abuse children, you are out of the priesthood.”’ But the plan stops short of imposing the “one-strike-you’re-out” rule many in the church have demanded. Priests who abused just once in the past could be retained in ministry under close supervision, but only after psychological evaluation and upon approval of a local lay-dominated review board that would hear from the abuser’s victim.
The plan also requires that bishops report all abuse accusations to police and cooperate with criminal investigations. All priests and church workers with access to children would be subject to background checks. “We express great sorrow and profound regret for what the Catholic people have had to endure,” the bishops wrote in the charter’s preamble. “We are profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened its pain, by what we have done or... failed to do.”
Throughout the church, reaction to the plan itself was favorable, but many members harbored varying degrees of doubt that the plan would be evenly applied and adequately enforced. “Both its content and its tone show how deeply concerned the bishops are about the precipitous and unprecedented erosion of confidence and trust they have suffered at the hands of their own Catholic people,” said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame and a leading liberal voice in the church. Reese, in an editorial in the current edition of America, praised the bishops for a “remarkable”job on a “complicated issue in a difficult environment. But some liberal advocacy groups called the measure “too little, too late” and said it would take wider reforms on such matters as priestly celibacy and ordination of women to fix the church. Victims’ advocacy groups voiced doubts that the new policy would make much difference. “It is long on exquisite hairsplitting about abusers, short on specifics about enforcement, and silent on cor rupt church leaders who have reassigned molesters and covered up their crimes,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Our fear is that even after Dallas, this sad and dangerous pattern.. . will continue.”
Answers. Indeed, the plan makes no mention of penalties or sanctions against bishops who reassign known abusers. Archbishop Flynn noted that his committee was not charged with finding an answer for that issue. Yet it is an issue that won’t go away. In listening to Catholic laity around the country in recent weeks, the Rev. Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, a seminary in Chicago, says he has found that “anger at the bishops far outrides the anger at the perpetrators.” For a bishop to “knowingly reassign an abusive priest, putting chil- dren in harm’s way, is a grave error and perhaps criminal conduct,” says Senior. “I don’t see how someone like that can continue to hold office.” It may take some high-level resignations, he says, before the healing can begin.
Questions remain as to how the rules will be enforced. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has no authority to impose rules on individual dioceses without papal approval. But Flynn says monitoring and reporting mechanisms will go a long way to ensure compliance. “Public disclosure will be sanction enough,” Flynn says. “I can’t imagine a bishop who would subject himself to that.” In any event, he adds, bishops in Dallas will have a chance to amend the proposal. He expects “a tremendous amount of debate”—particularly over the plan to give one-time offenders a shot at redemption. Some prelates al ready have indicated they will oppose that feature. Cardinals William Keeler of Baltimore and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles both say they will push for a “zero tolerance” rule. One offense is one too many,” says Keeler.
But any rule forcing a first-time abuser to leave the priesthood would require Rome’s approval, and some Vatican experts doubt that will be forthcoming. At an emergency summit in Rome in April, 2002, Pope John Paul II told American cardinals that “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young.” But he also affirmed the church’s teaching that even the worst sinners can repent and receive pardon.
Forgiveness. The pope also seemed forgiving of bishops who, he suggested, were not entirely to blame for reassigning abusive priests. “A generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong,” the pope said.
Some leading voices in the church say that even though the pope now is fully committed to ending the sex-abuse crisis, some in the Vatican are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation. Papal biographer and theologian George Weigel, who was in Rome during the emergency summit in April, recalls showing some top officials a thick file of news articles that had appeared in the U.S. press since January. ‘They had no idea,” Weigel says. “The European press had not been paying attention, and it was completely off the radar screen.” Even now, he says, there is an attitude among some in the Vatican of utter disregard toward press coverage and criticism. “I don’t care what they write,” Weigel quoted one cardinal as saying, “as long as we can do what we want.”
Nonetheless, Archbishop Flynn and others say they are confident that Rome will approve the plan. Once it is OK’d in Dallas, Flynn says, “well inform the Vatican, the Holy See, and if the Vatican reacts negatively, we’ll ask them why; our [conference] president will go over there and indicate why this must be law.”The Roman Catholic Church is at a crossroads,” says the Rev. Gus Brunston, pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi National Catholic Church in Denver. The bishops “have an opportunity to come out forcefully for the good, and I pray that they will.”.
U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
June 17, 2002, (pgs. 48-50)
Eieni Dimmier in Rome, Mike Tobin in Cleveland,
Michelle Daily in Denver, and Stephen Sawicki in Fairfield, Conn.
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