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No. 11- 5:30 PM 6/17 MP
Bishops agree to remove sex offenders from ministry

No. 10- 8:00 PM 6/16 TF/TR
Bishops urged, in a most unusual morning, to press for reforms beyond sex abuse policy

No. 9- 11:00 AM 6/14 TR
Bishops urged, in a most unusual morning, to press for reforms beyond sex abuse policy

No. 8- 9:15 AM 6/14 MP
Bishops issue ‘profound apology,’ hear victims’ stories, strong calls for reform

No. 7- 9:00 PM 6/14 TF
NCR Editor Tom Roberts assesses Dallas meeting on “News Hour”

No. 6- 1:45 PM 6/13 TF
Bishops caught in the middle as meeting opens

No. 4- 9:45 AM 6/13 TR
For victim leader Clohessy, years of work lead to 15 minutes before the bishops

No. 3- 4:30 PM 6/12 TF
Arriving in Dallas, bishops greeted with more bad news

No. 2- 11:00 AM 6/12 TF
U.S. bishops, facing church division, lack authority to set U.S. course

No. 1- 4:35 PM 6/11 TF
Cardinal lashes out against U.S. media as it prepares for Dallas

Posted 10:00 A.M. CST Thursday, June 13, 2002
Number 5

Serious questions for wider church loom after Dallas meeting

NCR Editor

In the past, the spring meetings of the U.S. Catholic bishops have been rather quiet affairs, sometimes almost retreat-like, with an easy air about them. They rarely attracted press beyond a few outlets that closely follow everything the bishops do.

This year, of course, is different. The bishops are under siege. Hundreds of reporters and television crews by the score, usually kept at bay, are clearly in control. The pressure of news coverage and public outrage has set the agenda. The only agenda item this year is trying to gain some control over the priest sex offender story.

If the pre-meeting deliberations -- the meetings with victims of clergy sex abuse and the news conferences following that gathering -- are any indication, two questions will be central to the meeting: Will the bishops adopt a zero-tolerance policy? Will they provide for a penalty for bishops who covered up abuse and switched priests they knew to be abusers from assignment to assignment?

The bishops have clearly lost control of the meeting. Their language has nothing to do anymore with the Christian community, it doesn’t issue from any consideration of the sacred.

They have two constituencies to deal with, the larger culture and the Catholic community. The meeting in Dallas is first and foremost about the larger culture.

The bishops have to find a way to satisfy public outrage, and they will do that by voting a zero tolerance policy and talking tough and tougher about getting rid of abusing priests.

They have left themselves no alternative.

Fr. Gary Hayes, a pastor in Kentucky, was sexually abused by priests as a teenager and has taken a leading role in bringing the issue before the bishops. He participated in the meeting Wednesday, June 12 between victims and members of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

We were talking outside the Fairmont hotel in Dallas Wednesday evening, the night before the official start of the meeting. He laughed when I made the point that the bishops seemed to be removed from the language of the Christian community in dealing with the problem, that it had become a purely legal endeavor.

“If they even tried to couch a policy in spirituality or scripture, I think it would be absolutely rejected because they now have absolutely no credibility in that area. The victims’ groups would laugh at them.”

I have been struck by how distant the bishops appear these days from the heart of the community they are supposed to lead by serving. They speak openly now about not being trusted, about having to regain credibility, and I don’t know if a zero tolerance policy will do it.

It will, perhaps, satisfy the outrage and interest of the wider culture, but I think their standing in the Catholic community is quite another matter.

“It could have been so, so different,” said David Clohessy, a long time leader of victim efforts to have the bishops institute a national policy. “If a bishop back in the beginning had been willing to meet with victims, had sincerely apologized and made sure the priest never got near kids again, we might not be here,” he said.

I agree with him. Though some might dismiss the wisdom of hindsight, my contact with victims over the years has convinced me that most people did not want to make a public deal of the matter, they didn’t originally want huge sums of money. They wanted an apology, an acknowledgement that their children and families had been deeply hurt. They wanted help and they wanted sexual predators and abusers removed from ministry.

Their pastors were nowhere to be found. Those in deepest need of caring encountered lawyers instead.

In very real terms, bishop after bishop turned his back on his people, essentially removing himself from the community. The dues for returning to the community may well be giving up some of the distinctions and privileges of office that keep bishops removed from their flocks.

One of the bishops during the meeting with victims was said to have remarked that this crisis is as much about how bishops see and relate to the people as it is about abuse.

Another reportedly said that he finally realizes that every time he thinks he understands the problem and has a chance to meet with survivors of sex abuse he realizes how much he has yet to learn.

The meeting between bishops and victims appeared to be an essential first step. It seems that the bishops have no choice at this point about a zero-tolerance policy. Anything less will bring the understandable wrath of victims’ groups and continued coverage by the general media. The bishops have left themselves no options in the matter. The possibility of making distinctions among types of abuse, of seeking reconciliation within the community in certain cases, of judging matters on a case-by-case basis, was lost at the start with the fundamental decision to not trust the community with the information about abusive priests.

In a more hopeful scenario, victims say the bishops at that meeting committed to continuing to meet regularly with victims in the future.

If the meeting here quiets some of the outrage in the general culture, deeper questions remain for the Catholic community. It is a crisis of another dimension that grows from the haunting question: How do the bishops regain moral credibility with the community they are charged to serve? It is a serious question for the church at large, and it won’t be answered in two days of meetings.