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June 6, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 44




Tom Roberts A plenary council on sex abuse may be premature

Tom Roberts NCR editor

Word has it that the bishops will spend a great deal of time at their annual spring meeting June 19-21 in St. Louis discussing the possibility of a plenary council.

Such a gathering for a national conference of bishops is provided for in canon law. In a cover letter over a five-page background document on the proposal that was distributed last July, eight bishops urged the meeting, saying they believe the bishops must address "the root causes" of the sex abuse crisis.

According to the letter, a plenary council should consider "what happened to the life and ministry of bishops and priests that makes us vulnerable to the failings that have humiliated us."

Who could argue against the bishops convening to do that kind of soul searching? The mere suggestion puts the rest of the church and the wider society on notice that the bishops understand they and the church face a crisis that demands extraordinary attention.

A good broad discussion of a nearly two-decade old scandal is long overdue.

The concern, however, is that the gathering not be a forum for pre-conceived solutions to a problem about which so much is yet unknown.

The background paper circulated called for "working in three dimensions to advance that purification which will be the ultimate measure of whether or not we have succeeded in meeting the current crisis":

  • Solemnly receiving church teaching on priestly and Episcopal identity, life and ministry; sexual morality in general, and celibate chastity.
  • Giving "unequivocal endorsement and normative force" to the means church teaching outlines "to foster the acts of virtue required of pastors," especially celibacy.
  • "Confirming the bishops in the authoritative exercise" of their ministry so that they can strengthen priests, especially in regard to sexual morality "so that we can give support to the lay faithful in responding to their call to holiness."

Those certainly are topics germane to the discussion. But it has become abundantly clear that the real breach of trust between bishops and priests and bishops and their people was much more than individual acts of abuse -- it was the betrayal of trust of the faithful and especially those victimized, the illegal and destructive conduct by some priests and the elaborate schemes to cover up the misdeeds, and the payment of money for silence.

It seems that discussion of priestly and Episcopal life and identity would be premature before some fundamental research is completed. The bishops should give themselves sufficient time -- several years -- to collect as much data as possible to understand the dimensions of the problem and more accurately define its contours.

The bishops should also look to experts in the social sciences and other appropriate disciplines to gain a deeper understanding of what happened. Open the seminaries and the chanceries, let the experts have access to documents and people so they can develop the information necessary to fashion as deep an understanding as possible about what went wrong. The U.S. church would be doing an invaluable service not only for the rest of the church but for the wider culture as well.

It is difficult to imagine that the U.S. bishops could, right now, come to any credible or meaningful solutions given the state of the information they have. There simply is too much they do not know.

It is difficult, too, to imagine a credible result to such a gathering unless lay people were viewed in a different light. It is understandable that bishops want to reassert and reconfirm their authority, but healing the breach of trust is going to take more than a declaration.

Perhaps the most pressing concern here should be not how they can assist laity in the pursuit of holiness but how laity might assist the bishops to return to a certain wholeness and credibility once more as leaders.

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