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June 3, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 41




Tom Roberts One more awful chapter in a deeply sad church

Tom Roberts NCR editor

Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien escaped prosecution this week by signing a statement admitting he mishandled priests accused of sex abuse.

It was one more awful chapter in what arguably is the bleakest era in U.S. church history. The prosecutor who oversaw the agreement made a telling remark Monday during a news conference.

Explaining why he opted for granting immunity over prosecution, Maricopa County Prosecutor Richard M. Romley said his first priority was to protect children. He went on to explain, according to a New York Times account, "What I'm trying to do is build a framework where the church culture changes -- at least here in Phoenix."

The change in "church culture" in Phoenix involves the creation of a victims' compensation fund to be used for treatment and counseling; the appointment of an independent advocate for youth protection; and turning over authority for the diocese's sexual abuse policy to the moderator of the curia. O'Brien is prohibited, under penalty of prosecution, from involvement with the youth protection advocate.

I don't know how intentional Romley was in his choice of words, but the use of the term "culture" is significant, for fundamental changes in the clergy and hierarchical cultures are essential to solving what has become a crisis of confidence in church leadership.

A year ago in Dallas, after the bishops approved the norms dealing with the sex abuse crisis, they stood and gave themselves a congratulatory ovation.

One could almost sense in that gesture and in their demeanor the wish that they had finally found the key to ending this awful episode in the U.S. Church.

Of course, nothing of the sort occurred. Immediately their norms were disputed by priests and rejected by Rome, and the principal figure of the most recent round of the scandal, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, was finally forced from office.

I remember leaving that gathering and thinking, during the flight from Dallas, that I had never before been so glad to get away from a meeting of U.S. bishops. And I have covered quite a few.

I wanted to get away because the overwhelming emotions I felt for them and the church were sadness and embarrassment. It was clear that many still didn't get it, that they didn't understand that the scandal had become so much more than finding the right mechanics to deal with abusive priests and aching victims.

I think they would not have been so pleased with their work had they really understood that overarching all of the sordid details was a feeling among laity of deep betrayal and of growing distrust in the church's leadership.

There are, indeed, good bishops. I don't believe any have ever had criminal intent. But I do think that many have been so blinded by the presumptions of clericalism and a hierarchical culture that is exclusive, secretive, too often removed from the faithful and accountable to no one, that they find it difficult to see where things went wrong.

Some will view the unprecedented agreement reached in Phoenix as a small step for justice; others will see it as letting the bishop off too easily.

I suppose I see such developments as inevitable. It represents a disturbing intrusion of civil law into church matters, but church leaders in many ways have brought on such scrutiny. Mostly I feel a deepening sadness to see reforms forced on a church that can't seem to find the leadership among its own bishops to bring about the changes that are so essential.

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