|Bishops urged, in a most unusual
morning, to press for reforms beyond sex abuse policy
By TOM ROBERTS
I have been covering meetings of the
U.S. bishops since about 1985. The one occurring now in Dallas is the most
unusual meeting Ive 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
hed never seen anything like it. This is by any measure an unusual
Where it goes, of course, is yet
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
Later in his text, in a section headed
confession, he said:
Those points, in themselves, would
have been enough to make this a landmark meeting. Bishops dont 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.
- 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.
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
Gregorys 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 churchs
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, Whats at stake in the present crisis?
Whats at stake, he
answered, is the viability of the churchs 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 churchs 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
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
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
He cautioned bishops against thinking
that a national policy dealing with sex abuse alone would solve the
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 isnt 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
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
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 Gregorys 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.