|Serious questions for wider church
loom after Dallas meeting
By TOM ROBERTS
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 doesnt issue from any consideration of the
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
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 dont know if a zero tolerance policy will do
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
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 didnt 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
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
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
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
wont be answered in two days of meetings.