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 Writer's Desk 

November 17, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 29



Tom Roberts Bishop's speech to bishops missed the point

Tom Roberts NCR editor

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These are difficult times for our bishops. We have said that time and again on the pages of NCR, and that sentiment bears repeating. So the last thing the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops needs is someone nipping at his heels telling him that his analysis of one of the most significant problems facing the bishops is way off base.

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, however, in his Nov. 14 presidential address before this year's annual gathering of U.S. bishops, raised the specter of the priest sex abuse scandal in a way that is improbably disconnected with reality. In a nearly four-page, single-spaced speech he said the priesthood had "suffered through a very difficult time,"; he appeared to inveigh against the "avalanche of negative public attention"; he lamented that the attention had been "focused on the priesthood, not for all of its wonder, commitment, dedication and perseverance, but for the darkness and sin which overwhelmed some"; and he spoke of the need for bishops to be fair to priests accused of crimes; and of the need for bishops and priests to strengthen their relationships. Never once, however, did he mention the culpability of bishops in the crimes and cover up of crimes.

He was speaking to a gathering of the U.S. hierarchy in which three of its senior members, three cardinals, as we have said plainly on the editorial pages of NCR, have been complicit in what any reasonable person would call criminal activity.

Skylstad attempted to make the media the evil element in this saga by implying that reporters had unfairly highlighted the dark side of the priesthood while ignoring its "wonder, commitment, dedication and perseverance."

The argument is getting old and tired. It is transparently and indefensibly defensive.

It's like married couples arguing that the media misrepresents the married state when it reports on parents sexually abusing children or committing violence against children. Why not report daily on parental heroics? On the dedication, the feeding and nurturing, the healing and the companionship, the teaching and loving that goes on in most households? The average consumer of responsible media knows that kind of story is done as are stories about heroic and dedicated priests. But the good side of parenting is what parents are expected to do -- and that's the same with priests. The community needs to know about the aberrant, the dangerous, the predators who endanger the safety of the community, especially its children, whether within the church or the wider community.

The example is useful for another significant difference that is relevant here -- and that is that most parents who are found to be abusive don't have elaborate bureaucracies and cultures bent on saving them from embarrassment and legal consequences. They can't count on a bishop and the machinery of the hierarchy from here to Rome to keep them sheltered and out of the reach of the law until the statutes of limitations run out.

One wonders if Bishop Skylstad read the recent reports out of Philadelphia and Los Angeles and, if he did, how he could have still gone on and given a talk about clergy sex abuse without mentioning the culpability of bishops.

He seemed surprised that lay people would stick with their priests - not to mention the church -- given the scandal that involved, in his words, but a few of the priests.

Two points here. There were more than a few -- there were thousands, more than 4,000 by the most conservative figure based on self-reported numbers. That number we know is higher because of new cases coming to light. And the circumstances of the abuse -- even in reports as horrible as those issued by the grand jury in Philadelphia and the Los Angeles archdiocese -- is understated. The cases dealt with in Philadelphia were only a portion of those in the files, and the ones outlined in L.A. were those the archdiocese was willing to concede in a court of law. It was, essentially, a scrubbed report.

Bishop Skylstad also has to know, as we have pointed out repeatedly in the pages of the paper, that similar caches of documents, which would explain in detail how bishops dealt with the crisis, exist in dioceses all over this land.

People stick by their priests because they believe in the priesthood, because they know how to forgive sin, because long ago this ceased to be a crisis about sexual abuse and became a crisis of betrayal, a crisis of misuse of power and of a lack of accountability on the part of the hierarchy.

I have to wonder what kind of church this would be today if it weren't so bound up and paralyzed by the sex abuse crisis. What would it be like if the bishops' conference had not been drained of its moral authority? What would the church be speaking about and working toward if it had not had to spend so much of its energy and resources on fighting the results of the scandal?

I imagine that the bishops, when they met in Dallas in 2002 and came up with their infamous zero tolerance plan and initiated the National Review Board, fully expected to put the crisis behind them. The immediate past president of the USCCB, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, declared at a February 2004 news conference, on the occasion of the release of the National Review Board's report, "The terrible history recorded here today is history."

That is true only in the narrowest, literal sense. The scandal isn't history, and it won't be as long as the community is left to wonder how it was betrayed by leaders we are once again asked to trust. We in the pews have learned this lesson above all others: there is nothing in canon law, in our theology and certainly not in our experience that can hold bishops accountable.

It is a difficult time to be a bishop. It is equally difficult, if not more difficult, to be a Catholic under leaders who act as if they are a law and an ethic unto themselves, far removed from the expectations those same leaders place on the rest of the community.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

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