|The challenges after
By THOMAS C. FOX and TOM
NCR Publisher and
After years of waiting for the bishops
to take resolute steps to deal with the sprawling clergy sex abuse scandal, it
is easy to be skeptical when they finally act.
Credibility, once lost, is not quickly
That said, a visibly shaken and
humbled U.S. bishops conference did act in Dallas. They overwhelmingly
passed a charter aimed at putting a lid on the calamity the clergy sex scandal
Facing enormous public pressure, the
bishops voted to evict from ministry all past, present and future clergy guilty
of any sex abuse offense. There are to be no exceptions. This could affect
hundreds of priests, not a few of whom have been working in parishes for many
The bishops decided to skirt the call
for mandatory laicization of fallen priests for two reasons. It is a complex
process that would take much time. It would involve Vatican officials, many of
whom are not favorably disposed to the idea.
Sex abuse victims have clamored for
the defrocking of every clergy sex offender. Having backed away from this
approach, the bishops assured the media in Dallas that priests removed from
ministry would not be allowed to wear their Roman collars and would not be
given desk jobs anywhere. Nor would they be allowed to be chaplains in
hospitals or nursing homes. These priests would be sent to monasteries to live
out their lives doing penance.
The bishops voted overwhelmingly, 239
to 13, to adopt the charter. They voted after a lengthy debate during which
bishops on the left and the right spoke out against policies void of the
churchs commitment to forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. These
bishops said the new charter is a betrayal of core Christian
The problem is that the betrayal began
many years ago when bishops turned their backs on victims and the larger
Catholic faithful. In Dallas, any talk by the bishops about compassion for
priests given their record of a lack of compassion rang shallow. The bishops
recognized that in order to ever teach compassion they first need to restore
their credibility. Dallas was an effort in that direction.
The bishops also voted without looking
over their shoulders wondering about the reactions of Vatican prelates. By
separating the charter, the pastoral guidelines, from the norms, the legal
guidelines, they devised their plan in a way that it could go into effect
without Vatican approval.
The bishops know, however, that
Vatican approval would considerably strengthen their plan. Without such
approval, bishops participate voluntarily -- but under the weight of
considerable public opinion.
The bishops' new policy embraces a
broad definition of sexual abuse -- one already in use by the Canadian
conference of bishops -- that defines sexual abuse as contacts or
interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an
object of sexual gratification for the adult. Such interactions could
include, for example, a priest watching pornography with a minor, one bishop
Even as the bishops proceed
voluntarily to implement the policy, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
will forward it to the Vatican, seeking to have Pope John Paul II make it
mandatory for all 194 dioceses in the country.
In adopting the charter, the bishops
have pledged themselves to new openness and accountability. The charter calls
for the formation of lay oversight boards at the local, regional and national
levels. The bishops announced that Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating would head
the national lay oversight commission.
The commission is to produce the first
study describing the number of abusive priests in the church and the number of
victims. Keating said his study would also uncover the causes that led to the
scandal. Lay Catholics need to demand that this be a broad-based study and that
a wide range of expert witnesses be interviewed.
Keating made it clear that he will use
the commission to demand that his church change. In addition, a new national
office is to issue annual public reports on the compliance of dioceses with the
new policy requirements.
He also put bishops on notice, saying
he would pursue any bishop who has obstructed or obstructs justice or covers up
any criminal act, recommending he be removed from his episcopal
The bishops had to be dragged to this
moment. Even now, there are no quick explanations as to why this has been the
case. The closed nature of the priesthood and the bishops lack of
accountability to the laity are two important factors here. The manner in which
church authority and its teachings on sexuality weigh heavily into the matter
Taken together, these elements have
fostered collective disregard for the laity. Ironically, the bishops are now
acting as they are because they need the laity in order to restore their own
Dallas potentially marks a new moment
in church life.
Circumstances forced the bishops to
sit and listen. What they heard -- some for the first time -- were horrific
stories of broken lives torn apart by both abuse priests and distant bishops.
They also heard lay leaders accusing them of arrogance and
Weve been humbled,
more than one bishop said.
By far, the most disappointing aspect
of the Dallas meeting was the failure by the bishops to address their own
complicity as enablers of abuse. This crisis would not have reached its current
levels were it not for episcopal patterns of cover-up.
In private conversations, the bishops
defended themselves saying they acted on the best advice they had at the time
and that past actions are being judged by current standards.
Not true. The bishops had
incontrovertible evidence about the nature of the crisis as early as 1985 --
and they chose to ignore it.
Some bishops hoped Cardinal Bernard
Law of Boston would resign in Dallas. Some in private meetings called for the
resignations of some bishops. It did not happen. We have Watergate without
Nixons resignation. This makes healing impossible.
Many priests and other Catholics will
now rightly ask why there are to be strict sanctions for offending priests and
none for bishops. The question will not go away. It blows a wide hole in the
fabric of episcopal repentance.
Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of
Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops' conference, acknowledged a need
to further explore the issue of holding accountable bishops who fail to remove
abusive priests from ministry.
We decided to continue this
conversation about accountability, he said. Until we can develop
ways of being more accountable to our people and more accountable to each
other, there will still be an unanswered issue that plagues this particular
moment in the church.
The bishops would have achieved more
credibility had they put the matter on the agenda for their November
Until the bishops begin to deal with
their own complicity and open the process of accountability to the laity, they
miss the meaning of the moment. It can be said they still do not get
it. For as long as the bishops are their own judges, as long as they,
alone, decide the nature of their restitution, they remain a group set apart
from the rest of the church.
It is a complex moment, one without
Most bishops begrudgingly acknowledge
they must now somehow share authority with the laity. They must do so to regain
respect and credibility. They also instinctively want to return
normalcy to their lives. It is difficult to have both.
Centuries back, England came to a
similar seemingly intractable moment. The question arose as to how to convert
from a monarchal to a more democratic system of governance, how to blend
traditions with current realities. The answer came in the form of two
parliamentary houses, one, the House of Lords, and the other, the House of
Commons. This is only one example. The 20th century began largely as a century
of kings and princes. Countries all over the world during the century made the
difficult transition to more representative forms of government.
The Catholic church must now take
The goal now is to restore health to
the church. The process will be arduous, but it must happen. Healing is
necessary. The brokenness must come to an end.