NCR Home Page
Subscribe to NCR
Special: Church in Crisis
National Catholic Reporter ®
Dallas Notes


Lastest Update
Click Here

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. 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. 5- 10:00 AM 6/13 TR
Serious questions for wider church loom after Dallas meeting

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 11:00 A.M. CST Friday, June 14, 2002
Number 9

Bishops urged, in a most unusual morning, to press for reforms beyond sex abuse policy

NCR Editor

I have been covering meetings of the U.S. bishops since about 1985. The one occurring now in Dallas is the most unusual meeting I’ve ever attended.

Many who have covered the bishops for a long time, people like Russell Shaw, a regular writer for Our Sunday Visitor and who once worked for the bishops’ conference, said he’d never seen anything like it. This is by any measure an unusual moment.

Where it goes, of course, is yet conjecture.

Since the current round of the scandal flared up in Boston, one widely held analysis is that a fundamental shift has occurred in the church in the United States, a shift that meant things would never be the same again.

How they will be different in the long run is the question.

If the first full day of the bishops’ meetings here was any indication, the shift holds promise for reform (see coverage by Margot Patterson elsewhere on this site).

First, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the conference, issued the kind of straightforward apology that victims and others have been awaiting for more than 15 years.

Gone from his text were all the usual qualifiers, that the scandal involved only a small number of priests, or that the scandal was the result of sexual obsession in the wider culture or that it was all driven by an anti-Catholic media.

“The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds, because of our failures in addressing the crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel.”

He spoke of “a rupture in our relationship as bishops with the faithful. And the breakdown is understandable.”

Later in his text, in a section headed “confession,” he said:

  • We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or -- God forbid -- with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse.
  • We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this.
  • We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.
  • And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church.
Those points, in themselves, would have been enough to make this a landmark meeting. Bishops don’t often apologize in public, before television cameras. Bishops are accustomed to issuing decrees and having answers. They are not fond (and increasingly less so) of consultation, particularly with lay people.

He distinctly, in at least four sections - on those abused, parents of abused, deacons, religious and the laity, and priests - made the simple declaration: “We ask your forgiveness.”

Gregory’s apology was followed by speeches by Scott Appleby, a historian from the University of Notre Dame, and Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine.

Lay people rarely get to address the bishops, much less to elaborate on their shortcomings.

Neither speaker pulled any punches, and each went quickly from the current sex abuse problem to deeper problems with clericalism, secrecy and abuse of power within the church’s leadership structure. They both, referring to Vatican II, the reform council of the mid 1960s, urged that the business of renewal, frustrated in recent years, be taken up again.

Appleby said he was asked to address the question, “What’s at stake in the present crisis?”

“What’s at stake,” he answered, “is the viability of the church’s moral and pastoral mission in the United States on the scale of its historic legacy; at stake is the reputation of the priesthood; at risk is the moral and pastoral authority of the bishops and the church’s credibility on social justice as well as sexual teaching. Whether the Catholic church as currently governed and managed can proclaim the gospel effectively in this milieu is an open question.”

The laity, said Appleby, often hear frank talk from bishops “about our own failings.”

“In that same spirit of candor,” he said, “ we must reproach you for your attitudes and behavior that have given scandal to the faithful, especially to the young.”

He told the bishops that their apologies will be ineffective unless they “name the protection of abusive priests for what it is -- a sin, born of the arrogance of power. The bitter fruit of clericalism is the often un-reflected upon assumption that by virtue of ordination alone a priest is spiritually and morally superior to the laity.”

He cautioned bishops against thinking that a national policy dealing with sex abuse alone would solve the problem.

“The principles underlying the policies you will implement on sexual abuse -- a return to strict discipline and moral oversight within the priesthood, a new regime of collaboration with laity marked by transparency and accountability, a firm resolve to pray together as a body of bishops and as individuals to root out clericalism in the priesthood and in the seminary -- these principles must be extended to all aspects of the life and service” of the church or “the next scandal will come quickly on the heels of this one,” he said.

Steinfels also warned against the temptation to think the crisis “is going to be swiftly and conclusively resolved by decisive action at this meeting.” She called whatever progress was made at the meeting only “a down payment on what you -- and what all of us -- must do over years to come.”

She pointed out that anger over the scandal was accompanied by a sense of helplessness. “This scandal has brought home to lay people how essentially powerless they are to affect its outcome -- and virtually anything else to do with the church. When we ask, ‘What can I do?’ what lay person isn’t brought up short in realizing, 40 years after Vatican II with its promise of consultation and collaboration, that our only serious leverage is money? That in itself is a scandal.”

She said that trust could be restored in the church only if church leadership “begins to trust the church -- the 99 percent of the church that is the laity.

“We can no longer indulge the slothful habit of postponing the church that we need until the next papacy, until the seminaries are full, until the controversies are resolved, until some faithful remnant rules the church. We need to bathe new life into the project of church renewal that we have neglected for too long. There is much that we must begin to talk about together.”

The morning ended with wrenching tales of victims, one of whom was a priest who left his order because he felt ostracized after revealing that he had been abused as a youngster by another priest in the order. The victims included a woman who told of her abuse as a youngster by a seminarian. It was a gripping scene, as victims who had fought for the chance to address the bishops for more than a decade finally got the chance to tell the entire assembly of the grief and agony that abuse by trusted religious leaders had caused in their lives.

It was a most unusual meeting. After the morning session, the bishops went off in the afternoon for sessions that lasted well into the night trying to hammer out a national policy on sex abuse.

I talked to one bishop mid afternoon. I told him it was difficult to listen to the speeches and testimony in the press gallery and that it must have been much more difficult to listen on the floor of the gathering.

“It was hell,” he said. But he quickly added that Gregory’s was the best presidential speech he had heard in years. And he said he welcomed much of what Appleby and Steinfels had to say. Then he wondered aloud where it would all go when the meeting was over. And he wondered what would happen to any proposal for zero tolerance once it reached the Vatican.