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. 9- 11:00 AM 6/14 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 8:00 P.M. CST Sunday, June 16, 2002
Number 10

The challenges after Dallas

NCR Publisher and Editor

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 regained.

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 has become.

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 years.

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 church’s commitment to forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. These bishops said the new charter is a betrayal of core Christian values.

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 said.

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 office.

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 as well.

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 authority.

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 betrayal.

“We’ve 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 Nixon’s 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 meeting.

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 precedent.

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 similar steps.

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.