|Bishops caught in the middle as
By THOMAS C. FOX
Entering the two-day Dallas meeting,
pressure is mounting on the bishops to face an issue they have wanted to avoid
at all costs - their own culpability in enabling the clergy abuse to continue
for the past two decades.
The pressure started to build
immediately after the release of the conference draft statement 10 days ago by
the ad hoc bishops committee on sex abuse. Victim groups along with other
Catholic reform groups immediately pounced on the missing element.
It is astonishing they could
issue the draft and not touch on their own culpability, said Frances
Kissling, President of Catholics for a Free Choice. It shows how isolated
they are from public opinion that they thought they could get away from
At least some of the bishops, whether
they can do anything or not, appear to understand that the Dallas gathering
will become another public relations fiasco -- like the meeting of U.S.
cardinals with the pope in April -- unless somehow they tackle the
bishops culpability issue.
This growing pressure was evident in
remarks made Wednesday night by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the
bishops conference. Gregory said the bishops would take up the issue. He
did not elaborate. Many reformers here are skeptical.
None of the lobbyists for reform I
have spoken to here consider his remarks to represent more than a bone being
tossed to public opinion. If he takes it up, he wont find support
among the (bishops) conference. No I dont expect that to go
anywhere, said Kissling.
Thus, the bishops find themselves in a
hard place. Public opinion is forcing them reluctantly onto a dreaded terrain.
There are no roadmaps. Meanwhile, there is no evidence whatsoever among the
bishops, especially from published reports quoting Roman prelates, that even
minimal change is anywhere on the bishops collective radar screens.
The bishops must be accountable!
They are like the rest of us. Just like doctors, lawyers, teachers,
anyone, said Tary Harms, a member of FOSIL (Fellowship of Southern
Illinois Laity). And what about the pope? Lets face it. The church
is set up on a military model. The bishops are officers and the pope is the
general. When is he going to be called to accountability? All orders come from
the top down.
Discussions get heated here.
At least for now, reform lobbyists
here seem to be rallying around three immediate demands:
1. Zero tolerance for clergy abuse
going forward and extending back.
2. Substantive episcopal
accountability, including substantial resignations of bishops who have enabled
3. Lay financial oversight of church
Anything less will not
work, said Anthony Padovano, a board member of the Corps of Reserve
Priests United for Service, often called CORPUS, an organization that has
lobbied for a more inclusive clergy.
Padovano and other reform advocates
here are skeptical that substantive change can or will occur, not in Dallas,
not during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. He will go to his grave
resisting all change, said Padovano.
Reformers here generally recognize the
bishops are in a difficult spot. Their temperaments and positions dont
deal with change well. Some reformers note the bishops no longer have the
authority to set their own course and can only recommend to Rome.
No bishop to this date has publicly
called for the kind of change being envisioned by reform advocates here.
Only hours into this historic meeting,
the U.S. bishops have conceded to a demand of victims, the demand to be heard
in a public session. The victims spoke this morning in deeply moving testimony.
Their talks represent a major new moment in the two decade-long clergy abuse
scandal. It has the potential to represent a turning point in modern church
history as well, a movement toward a humbler church, a humbler episcopacy.
These public addresses would have been considered unthinkable six months ago.
At the same time, a dark cloud seems
to be gathering on the horizon. The victims talks will only likely stir
greater demands for substantive change, for real reform in the way the church
Simply listening to victims, without
responding to their collective demands for episcopal accountability, it seems,
will not be enough, for the victims, other advocates of reform, or for the
appeasement of public opinion.
Dallas, for now, shows the strength of
the faith of simple people, victims, and the complexities of bringing
substantive change to the church.
It is said that change occurs slowly
in the 2,000-year-old Catholic church. This is generally said as a positive
thing, that this keeps Catholicism from being swept up in quickly shifting
currents of history. Perhaps. However, at this time and at this place, the idea
of slow change, coming when the bishops have lost credibility and victims are
bringing their stories to the world on live television, sounds fatal