|NCR Editor Tom Roberts
assesses Dallas meeting on News Hour
By THOMAS C. FOX
At the completion of the first day of
the bishops Dallas meeting, NCR Editor Tom Roberts found himself having
to move from camera to camera, providing spot assessments for PBSs
News Hour and later for CNNs Newsnight with Aaron
Brown. What follows is a transcript of Roberts interview with the
News Hours Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on today's
meeting, we turn to Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic
Reporter, an independent weekly that covers the Catholic church. It was one
of the first publications to report on pedophilia in the priesthood, more than
15 years ago.
MARGARET WARNER: How unusual was this
spectacle we saw today and we just saw a little bit of here, where you had
survivors and non-priest church thinkers openly challenging the bishops in an
open way like this, televised?
TOM ROBERTS: I've been covering these
meetings since about 1985, and this was the most unusual meeting I have ever
been to. This was an unprecedented event. I think this meeting in Dallas may be
seen historically as a marker of sorts at which things began to change a bit. I
talked to a lot of old hands who have covered a lot of these meetings, and
everyone said this was just a distinctly different moment.
MARGARET WARNER: Listening to the
survivors today, just here from a distance on television, they were incredibly
moving. How did the bishops respond?
TOM ROBERTS: I talked to one bishop in
the middle of the afternoon, and I said, "You heard a lot of difficult things
today." He said, "yes." I said, "This must be a difficult time." And his
response was, "This is hell."
I think that bishops have heard these
stories in the past, they've read about them. But as this one bishop said,
referring to September 11,"You know, you read all the stories about people
losing loved ones, but it's when you come face to face with one that you really
appreciate the depth of loss." And I think in the same way, all of them
together in that room, hearing the stories, the deep pain and anguish that goes
on in a life where that kind of trust has been abused, has to have an effect.
And I understand that the victims'
meetings behind closed doors with the bishops were even more powerful and more
wrenching. They're getting at least a chance now -- some 15 years after this
really broke open -- to tell their stories face to face in an unedited version,
and I think it may have an effect.
MARGARET WARNER: What is the mood of
the victims, the survivors? There are even some of the organized groups there.
I mean are they... is it angry? Is it demanding? How would you characterize
TOM ROBERTS: Well, I haven't talked to
all of them, but I think that David Clohessy would be. He's a leader of the
SNAP Organization (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), and I think
he could probably be a good gauge for their mood. And we spoke last night, and
he said he's beyond anger at this point. He was exhausted.
He said when he went into the room to
have the private meeting with the bishops yesterday, he didn't even feel elated
because they had fought so long to get there.
And then last night, he received the
news that he would get 15 or 20 minutes before the bishops today, and he went
off to figure out what he was going to say. They're powerful moments. I think
there is a sense of having taken a significant step.
But the victims also made clear to the
bishops during their talks that they weren't counting on great change. They
weren't trusting yet because they had been through this process once before,
and some of them several times before. And so they were going to wait and see.
I think that was the caution that they gave very clearly.
MARGARET WARNER: You said that you
thought they might be having an effect. What's your sense -- and I know the
meetings are still going on behind closed doors -- of where the bishops are
moving on, particularly the key point about what to do about abusive priests?
TOM ROBERTS: What I hear is that the
movement has been clearly to some form of zero tolerance. Exactly what form
that takes, we don't know yet.
One bishop I talked to in the middle
of the afternoon said that they were still really discussing. And I talked to
someone earlier today who has been very close to the negotiating process for
the last couple of months, or in the last couple of weeks at least, on where
this policy would go. And his feeling was that they certainly were settled on
zero tolerance, that one strike and you're out.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt
you there. You mean not only for priests in the future, which is what the
original proposal said, but also for priests in the past?
TOM ROBERTS: Right. He thought that
especially after these private meetings with the victims yesterday and the
public session today, that anybody who walked out of that room thinking that
there was going to be any shading on this or a case-by-case consideration just
was fooling themselves.
It was so powerful, and I think that
also the public demand for accountability and for a very clear policy at this
point has taken the possibility of viewing cases one at a time off the table.
Now, what they are, he said,
considering are options to... they're using the term "taking someone out of
ministry," which I think may help avoid some canonical problems with church law
and also problems with Rome, because anything they ultimately approve here
ultimately will have to be approved in Rome.
And under that category of taking
someone out of ministry, I understand, are at least three options: One would be
sending someone to a place of penance, essentially the option would be to go to
a monastery and, I guess, in a way disappear for the rest of your life. The
second option would be to seek laicization. There's the person who's been
accused. And the third -
MARGARET WARNER: That's defrocking?
TOM ROBERTS: Well, defrocking, yes.
Yes. In other words, he would be removed as a priest. And then the third one
would be canonical, or a legal process, which the church would take against
someone aiming toward laicization, but that would be a longer
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about this
other issue that the survivors and even some of these lay leaders are talking
about -- about holding bishops accountable, bishops who've let abusive priests
remain, have transferred them without telling the new diocese, so on?
TOM ROBERTS: Yes. I was told that this
was going to be another point of debate in the room today. I don't know if the
bishops got to that.
We haven't heard anything from them.
But that's a strong point, and I think it's not only survivors; you will find
among Catholic groups, and Catholic groups who would not have ventured near
this kind of a statement six months ago, saying that they can't come away from
this meeting with a policy that only addresses abusive priests.
Something has to be in there about
bishops, you know, who have overseen the process, who have moved priests
knowing they were pedophiles and abusers from one parish to another.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally on Scott
Appleby's point, from Notre Dame, who said you really have to give more
authority to the laity, to lay leaders, the lay people, do you see any movement
in that direction from this meeting?
TOM ROBERTS: That's a difficult one to
predict. And it's difficult because in all of the lay movements that we're
seeing growing out of this scandal, there are groups gathering in Boston and
New York and elsewhere around the country saying, we have to insert ourselves
into the governance of the church. We are not going to let this kind of thing
happen again. The problem is where to insert themselves.
It's the same problems the bishops
face with moving from the way they have done business in the past to these new
ideas, new words like accountability and clarity. There's really no mechanism
at this point for getting from one point to the next. But there is an
incredible amount of pressure, and the example today that they would invite in,
unedited, lay people who would deliver speeches deeply critical of them -- I
mean all the speakers, including the victims, went very quickly beyond sexual
abuse as the problem to the problem of governance.
Scott Appleby used the arrogance of
power. Peggy Steinfels said that this was only the beginning. They had to get
around to seriously looking at including people, getting back to the business
of renewal that started at the Vatican Council in the 1960s, that renewal
council. Everyone used that as a kind of a touch point.
So it's going to be interesting to see
what happens after this meeting. I think that they have two constituencies, the
broader public, which is demanding accountability, as well as the people inside
the church. But there's a deeper question inside the church, and some bishops
have already begun to talk to this, of accountability to the faithful, of
reentering that community in a new way. So it's going to be interesting to see
what comes out of it.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Roberts, thanks
TOM ROBERTS: Pleasure to be