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John L. Allen, Jr. -
Rest of world skeptical of 'zero tolerance' strategy

Thomas P. Doyle -
Reflections from the eye of the hurricane

Eugene Kennedy -
The secret cause of the sex abuse scandal

Margot Patterson -
Support grows for zero tolerance; George calls for including sanctions for bishops

Margot Patterson -
Central question: Is proposal too tough or too lenient?

Sandra Schneiders -
The Weakland case: An invitation to cast the first stone

Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Central question: Is proposal too tough or too lenient?

Margot Patterson is senior writer for NCR.


Proposals for a national policy on sex abuse are stirring controversy within the ranks of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops. Some bishops are reportedly finding the draft document proposed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee on sexual abuse too lenient because it does not call for the automatic laicization of any priest found guilty of sexual abuse. The new proposals could conceivably allow a priest who has committed a single act of sexual abuse in the past to continue in ministry if he meets certain conditions.

The document has triggered a variety of responses not only among bishops but also among priests — those most directly affected by the strictures. As bishops debate the document they will discuss in Dallas, priests around the nation are discussing their own responses. Some call the document a step in the right direction while others believe the proposals do not go far enough in addressing bishops’ own complicity in the sex abuse scandal. Still others say concerns about due process for accused priests have not been adequately addressed.

Fr. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, called the document a “good beginning” that had some significant omissions. “I want to affirm there are good things in the draft,” Silva said. “But it seems like the draft is focused on the priests, and I think there needs to be an assumption of responsibility on the part of the bishops for the administrative mistakes they’ve made. Who’s going to hold the bishop accountable for following a national public policy in the future?”

Msgr. Jim Kelly, pastor of St. Brigid’s Church in Brooklyn, New York, called the draft policy “an honest effort to address the pedophilia part of the problem.” A lawyer as well as priest, Kelly said he did have concerns about the “civil libertarian aspect” of the proposed policy. “I believe there is a presumption of innocence that everyone is entitled to,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to have the execution first and then the trial. There should be some kind of due process.”

Fr. Bob Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, Massachusetts, said he had mixed feelings about the proposed policy that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops posted on its web site June 4. “ It’s firm. It shows the bishops are on notice. The crimes will not be in any way minimized,” Bullock said. But Bullock said he was concerned by the lack of attention to due process and false accusations in the document as well as by the “creeping pedophilia” he sees reflected in public discussions of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

“I think anybody who abuses a child is disqualified on that basis, but I think each individual case has to be considered on the nature of the act itself,” Bullock said. “The abuse of a pre-pubescent child — by that very disease a priest is disqualified. But I think we’re suffering from creeping pedophilia so that any accusation is being judged in those terms. It’s not so black and white, so clear cut.”

Zero tolerance is a legal term, not a biblical term or a spiritual term, Bullock observed. “To have this zero tolerance policy and immediately be handing people over to the civil courts — there are courts in other countries that you wouldn’t want to hand people over to.”

While supporters of a strict one-strike-and-you’re-out policy see it as a way of restoring the church’s credibility and assuring the American public that children will be safe from renegade priests, Silva said he fears a zero tolerance policy will promote secrecy and concealment of facts rather than accountability. “I think the American people and the American Catholics are aware that zero tolerance does not work,” Silva said. “It creates more problems than it attempts to solve. It doesn’t work in the educational system. It doesn’t work in the prison system. We need to always remember we’re human beings. Absolutes don’t work for human beings. That’s why the bishops need to talk not only what they will do with priests but what they will do with bishops.”

But zero tolerance is what many victims of clerical sex abuse are insisting the bishops must embrace. “From our perspective it doesn’t matter if we are 3 or 13 or 23. Victims are vulnerable and they look up to the priests, and when the priests cross the line it has a devastating impact on the victim. There’s no reason to leave them in ministry,” said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The bishops will be under such intense public pressure to institute a zero tolerance policy that Fr. Norman Rotert sees it as almost an inevitability. “I think that there are varying degrees of addiction we’re dealing with and, probably, occasionally no addiction,” said Rotert, a pastor of Visitation Church in Kansas City. Mo. “I think in that instance it’s possible for a priest to function very, very successfully once a priest is sorry for what he’s done and wants to change his life. In the present climate I don’t think that’s possible for the bishops to implement. There’s too much emotion right now.”

Rotert said he would like the U.S. bishops meeting in Dallas June 13-15 to move beyond the pedophilia scandal to implementing the Second Vatican Council by establishing diocesan pastoral councils and consultative bodies at the diocesan and national level. “I want them (the bishops) to deal with the underlying issue, and that issue is not pedophilia,” Rotert said. “That was dealt with 12 and 15 years ago in most dioceses. This explosion is about the bishops and how they lead. The issue is the style of leadership, the style being autocratic and paternalistic.”

Bullock agreed. “The crimes are heinous certainly, but in the minds of a lot of people it’s not a sex scandal it’s a dishonesty scandal. It’s about duplicity and covering up. It’s about lack of candor and honesty on the part of our leaders. There are structural systemic issues that need to be addressed: the way authority is exercised, the way governance is experienced, the voicelessness and lack of representation of priests and people.”

A member of the Priests’ Forum, an informal association of priests in the Boston archdiocese that began meeting in the fall of 2001 to share experiences and to give priests an opportunity for professional development, Bullock said the sex scandal is having an enormous effect on priests’ morale.

“I think many are angry and scandalized. Disconsolate. Many feel shattered and shamed,” Bullock said. Unfortunately, he added, the leadership of the Boston archdiocese is so consumed with its own problems it doesn’t have the time or energy to address the needs of its priests. “There is no way the leadership is helping us understand what we are going through because the leadership is so preoccupied with the legalities and what is happening to them,” Bullock said.

Msgr. Dennis Sheehan, a pastor at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the scandal is curtailing bishops’ ability to influence the national conversation on poverty, global debt, the environment and other issues of social justice that the bishops have spoken out on in the past. “There’s a decided erosion in the way people are looking at the hierarchical level of the church,” Sheehan said. “ They’re asking serious questions about the competence and trustworthiness of diocesan officials and bishops. …The big consequence is that the bishops constitute a huge moral voice in American society and we’re going to lose that for the better part of a generation until we clean up our act.”