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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

May 7, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 23




global perspective The American episcopacy's real nightmares are ahead

by Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large

With the Boston Globers' book, "Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church" (Little, Brown), now fading from memory, the U.S. bishops hope sex abuse will fade from national memory too. Fat chance.

The bishops' cynical handling of sex abuse has permanently damaged this church's prestige in the public mind. This tar will stick to us the way polygamy sticks to the Mormons.

However, the bishops and their lawyers learned from Boston: don't release the documents. The documents destroy. If they can sit on the details, the reasoning goes, they're home safe.

Don't believe it.

The American episcopacy's real nightmares are ahead -- on the money side. The scandalized laity had little leverage on the sex abuse cover-up. But the laity has all the leverage it needs, and more, on the financial side -- it is the financial side.

To see how the institution abuses its financial responsibilities read John Van Der Zee's "Agony in the Garden: Sex, Lies and Redemption from the Troubled Heart of the American Catholic Church" (Nation Books).

It's the tale of how Bishop George Patrick Ziemann (who resigned in 1999 after admitting to having a sexual relationship with a priest he ordained) and his cohorts ran the Santa Rosa diocese in Northern California $30 million into the red.

But Ziemann did nothing culpable financially. Who said so? One man, San Francisco Archbishop William Levada. (Levada served as apostolic administrator of Santa Rosa diocese after Ziemann resigned.)

Let's go through that one more time: 140,000 Catholics are ripped off to the tune of $30 million -- $2,000-plus for every Catholic man, woman and child in the diocese -- as Ziemann squandered their hard-earned savings. Money for schools and churches and outreach programs.

And one man -- prosecutor, judge and 12-man jury Levada -- exonerates Ziemann and his team by blaming it all on "poor investment decisions."

Legendary scam artist Bernie "Do You Sincerely Want to be Rich?" Cornfeld should have been so lucky. His were all poor investment decisions, too.

The Santa Rosa details? All under wraps. Why? On what grounds have those accounts never been made public? Where are the grand juries when you really need them?

There will be a reckoning.

Right now, the Catholic bishops no more understand their altered role in the affections of American Catholics than they do the dynamic of the sex-abuse-plagued church's changed place in American society.

What will change the structural church internally is that the rising generations won't give. Period. Unlike the Boomers and those gone before, the rising generations haven't the institutional loyalty. Their formation is "spiritual," not institutional.

Within 20 years, the money the bishops handle today isn't going to be there. Even with complete transparency.

Which they don't believe in anyway.

Arthur's Daily Ditty

Fasten Your Seat Belts
Boston Globers, sex abuse probers,
Reveal from church brambles and thickets,
That Cardinals en masse, fly to Rome all first class
     -- But who really pays for those tickets?
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