|This is the final
column I’m filing from the United States. As soon as I hit the “send” button,
I head for the airport to return to Rome. It’s clearly time. I find myself
waking up in the middle of the night dreaming of my favorite Italian dish,
all’amatriciana, proof that I’ve been out of the Eternal City too long.
I made that observation
to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, whom I know from his days as
rector of the North American College in Rome, while both of us were in
line at the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt Regency during the fall meeting
of the U.S. bishops. Dolan quipped that maybe we need a support group for
recovering amatriciana addicts, but in truth, this is one form of
dependency from which I have no desire to escape.
* * *
I stayed an extra week
in the U.S. in order to help cover the American bishops’ meeting. The top
item on the agenda was the revised norms for sex abuse by priests, which
attempt to reconcile the strict “zero tolerance” program the bishops adopted
at Dallas in June with the due process concerns raised by the Vatican.
Critics saw the Vatican-induced changes as a means of watering down the
The bishops clearly wanted
to treat the Washington meeting as the beginning of the end of their 10-month
The meeting came just
a few days after the American mid-term elections, and like skilled politicians,
the bishops in Washington were relentlessly “on message.” They found a
thousand ways to repeat the same point: Our commitment to zero tolerance
is rock-solid. One act of sexual abuse by any priest, anytime, anywhere,
and he’s out of ministry forever.
Having spoken to a number
of the bishops away from the glare of the TV cameras, I have the impression
they’re quite serious about this pledge. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver,
for example, told me flatly that no matter what happens in Rome or anywhere
else, no man guilty of sexually abusing a minor will ever get another assignment
in his archdiocese.
Whether the bishops can
make this commitment stick in every case, and how the program works out
in practice, however, remain open questions.
On the first point, while
the bishops can certainly pledge that every priest who ever abused anyone
will be permanently removed from ministry, ultimately any priest so removed
can take his case to Rome. The U.S. bishops cannot speak for the Vatican
as to how these appeals will be adjudicated.
The new norms require
bishops to request a waiver from the statute of limitations for sex abuse
in canon law (ten years from the victim’s 18th birthday). Several
said they expect Rome to grant these waivers almost as a matter of course,
and I suspect they’re right. I spoke to a Vatican official on Monday, and
he told me that he too expects the Holy See to be “liberal” in trying to
support the U.S. bishops. Yet he also said he expected there will be a
few cases in which a waiver is denied, either because the offense is simply
too old or because the behavior in question is not sufficiently serious.
Bishop William Lori of
Bridgeport, Conn., a member of the mixed commission and of the Ad Hoc Committee
on Sexual Abuse, said that even if the Vatican denies a waiver so a canonical
process is impossible, norm nine gives a bishop administrative authority
to permanently remove a priest from ministry. Yet in that case too a priest
has the right to appeal to Rome (a canonical appeal from an administrative
act is technically called recourse). His chances of success may
actually be greater in the case of an administrative removal, since Rome
has long frowned on imposing permanent penalties through non-judicial means.
Whether a priest is removed
through a canonical trial or an administrative act, if he wants to fight
the penalty, it will be the Vatican and not an American bishop who plays
the ultimate card. Given that, it will be important to watch how ecclesiastical
courts in Rome handle these cases. Given the strong bias in canon law in
favor of the defendant, and in favor of restorative and opposed to punitive
justice, it is likely that at least a handful of these appeals will be
I played out this scenario
for one U.S. bishop in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He granted
its logic, then responded with grim determination: “They’re not going to
force me to reinstate a man against my will. It’s not going to happen.”
It will be revealing,
therefore, to watch how these cases play out.
There are other open
questions. For one, the definition of sex abuse remains to some extent
vague. The new norms use the standard from canon law, which is “an external,
objectively grave violation of the sixth commandment.” What that means
is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. This elasticity raises
the possibility that one accused priest might be held to a very tough standard
by one church court, while another priest would face a very loose standard
in a different place.
When I asked Cardinal
Francis George about this, he conceded the possibility, saying that it
works this way in the civil law as well. George said that the bishops might
want to consider training the judges who will be handling these cases so
there will be a uniform standard of justice. This will be another area
that observers will be tracking as this new system goes into effect.
Another question mark
is the reporting of accusations to civil authorities. The Dallas norms
required this, while the revised norms simply say that bishops will comply
with the civil law. Critics saw this as a retreat, but the bishops repeatedly
insisted in Washington that the Dallas charter, as distinct from the norms,
still obliges them to a higher standard of reporting. Yet the charter has
no legal force, so at least in theory a bishop is free to chart his own
course on this point. Certainly people will be watching to see what the
bishops actually do.
Finally, there remains
the open question of holding bishops accountable. Bishop Joseph Galante
of Dallas made the very good point in Washington that the new program actually
does contain some accountability measures for bishops. The National Review
Board and the new Office of Child Protection, for example, will monitor
the implementation of the norms and will publicize the names of bishops
who are failing to live up to their commitments. Archbishop Harry Flynn
of St. Paul also told me that the church already has a system for bishops
to monitor one another in the area of finance. Bishops send their financial
statements, for example, to their metropolitan archbishop, who has a sort
of oversight authority. Flynn said the same sort of system could be applied
to sex abuse cases.
The bishops adopted a
statement of commitment in Washington, in which they explicitly owned up
to their failures in the sex abuse crisis. “We acknowledge our mistakes
in the past where some bishops have transferred priests who had abused
minors from one assignment to another,” it reads. “We recognize our role
in the suffering this has caused, and we apologize for it.”
These are all worthy
steps. The problem, however, is that they all apply to accountability from
this point forward. They do nothing to address the question of accountability
for the past failures that created this mess in the first place. To date,
some 325 priests have been permanently removed from ministry under the
terms of the Dallas program. Not one bishop, however, has been removed
from office for his failure to intervene when he should have known what
was happening, to prevent further abuse. I asked Lori if the bishops could
escape this crisis without any resignations, and he simply shrugged and
said: “I can’t predict that.”
* * *
Speaking of exiting from
the crisis, there clearly was an effort in Washington by the bishops to
act like men who are back in the saddle. They tried to project an air of
rounding a corner, suggesting that the long paralysis imposed by the sex
abuse scandals was coming to an end. They issued a number of statements,
on Iraq, on the kidnapping of Colombian Bishop Jorge Jimenez, on domestic
violence, on the U.S./Mexico relationship.
They also sent a not-so-subtle
message to various lay activist groups not to push too far, that while
the bishops adopted a dramatic change in business-as-usual on the sex abuse
questions, they are not going to be bullied into adopting broader reform
agendas. This note was struck first in Bishop Wilton Gregory’s opening
“As bishops, we should
have no illusions about the intent of some people who have shown more than
a casual interest in the discord we have experienced within the church
this year,” Gregory said Nov. 11.
“There are those outside
the church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the
church espouses, and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance
of practices and ways of life that the church cannot and will never condone.”
When he spoke that line, the bishops greeted Gregory with rousing applause.
“Sadly, even among the
baptized, there are those at extremes within the church who have chosen
to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their
own agendas. One cannot fail to hear in the distance – and sometimes very
nearby – the call of the false prophet, ‘let us strike the shepherd and
scatter the flock.’ We bishops need to recognize this call and to name
it clearly for what it is.”
The less apologetic tone
was clear in lots of other ways. Lori, for example, did not back down from
his decision to ban “Voice of the Faithful” in Bridgeport. He argued that
their neutrality on issues such as women’s ordination or optional celibacy
is actually itself problematic, since the Catholic Church does have
positions on those questions, and any group that fails to support them
is not “thinking with the church.”
There are forces in the
church, on both left and right, that have eagerly grabbed hold of this
crisis in order to advance agendas for the church that are only remotely,
if at all, related to the issue of sexual abuse. Gregory’s comments seemed
to be a warning that the bishops will not be bullied into accepting these
The bishops were also
tougher on the dissenters around the edges of the meeting. They gave the
bum’s rush to a small knot of protestors from the group Soul Force, which
pushes for the inclusion of homosexuals in all faith traditions. Three
of their number were denied the Eucharist at a liturgy at the National
Shrine on Nov. 11, and they showed up in the Hyatt Regency Nov. 12 to protest.
They were asked to leave, and when they refused, they were arrested by
D.C. Metro Police. (Those arrests were, according to spokespersons for
the bishops conference, carried out at the request of the Hyatt Regency.)
They spent the night in jail, incommunicado, and were finally released
late in the evening of Nov. 13.
It remains to be seen
whether the bishops can really pull off a return to “business as usual,”
whether the public trust and confidence needed to move the church forward
has really been restored. Much will depend on how they live up to the commitments
made in Washington.
* * *
I did a fair bit of TV
during the bishops meeting, most it for places where I routinely appear
when there’s Catholic news: CNN, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly on PBS,
and lots of local affiliates from markets in which the sex abuse story
has been big. I was also invited for the first time to do Pat Buchanan’s
program on Fox News. Buchanan, of course, is a Catholic who served in the
Nixon and Reagan administrations, and has run more than once for the Republican
nomination for president.
How right-wing a Catholic
is Buchanan? Consider this. As we were chatting on set before the segment,
Buchanan told me that he once was a reader of the National Catholic
Register, then he moved onto the Wanderer, and finally ended
up with the Remnant. The only Catholic option further to the right
of the Remnant would probably be sedevacantism, or the denial
that John Paul II is the true pope because of his embrace of modernism
and inter-religious dialogue. The Remnant is generally sympathetic
to that view, but not quite ready to take the plunge.
Reflecting the temper
of the times, however, Buchanan and his more left-leaning co-host were
completely in agreement on what they wanted to talk about: Why we haven’t
seen a few bishops’ head on platters? On this issue, at least, the leftists
and rightists in the secular world seem to be on the same page.
* * *
One of my favorite cardinals
joined the U.S. bishops in Washington, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Greek
Catholic Church in Ukraine. Readers of my book Conclave: The Politics,
Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election will recognize
Husar as my “dark horse” candidate to be the next pope.
Husar is bright, modest,
pastoral, and as a patriarch of one of the 21 Eastern Rite Catholic Churches,
he feels the case for collegiality and inculturation in his bones. He is
also one of the most genuinely Christian men I’ve ever met. I was in Ukraine,
for example, when the pope visited in June 2001. Many Ukranian Greek Catholics
felt vindicated by the visit, since they had withstood enormous pressure
from the Soviets to be assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church. Some
were publicly pointing fingers at the Orthodox, accusing them of collaboration.
(No doubt in some cases a justified charge). Husar, however, stood during
the main papal Mass in L’viv and apologized to the Orthodox for any Greek
Catholics who might be looking to them with malice in their hearts. It
was a marvelous, generous gesture, one that does Husar tremendous credit.
Husar, by the way, is
an American citizen. His family came to the United States as part of the
Ukranian diaspora when the Soviets rolled in.
In his address to the
bishops, Husar offered the obligatory note of thanks for all the support
offered to the Greek Catholics in Ukraine by American Catholics and by
the U.S. bishops’ conference. According to Monsignor George Sarauskas,
who runs the Office to Aid the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe,
the U.S. bishops have funneled some $8-9 million to Ukraine since the Greek
Catholic church emerged from the underground. Germany, he said, is the
only nation that has given more. U.S. Catholics on average give about $2.5
million annually to the Ukrainian church, Sarauskas estimated.
Husar also urged the
American bishops to not allow their current troubles to distract them from
offering moral leadership on the global stage. The rest of the world is
looking to the United States for vision, he said, and in this precarious
moment, the bishops must not fail to supply it.
I bumped into Husar in
the lobby of the Hyatt, and he immediately squinted and said: “Ah, my nemesis.”
He knows, of course, that I have been promoting him as a papabile,
and has to feign the requisite offense at being mentioned in such a context.
The truth, however, is that Husar is far more amused than he is offended
at the suggestion; from his point of view, I might as well be talking about
him sprouting wings and flying to Mars.
I note for the record,
however, that a couple of Eastern Rite bishops standing around Husar smiled,
pumped my hand, and encouraged me to “keep it up, you’ve got the right
* * *
I passed some time at
the Washington meeting with Fr. Bruce Harbert, an English priest from Birmingham
who is the new executive secretary of the International Commission on English
in the Liturgy. That’s the translation body for liturgical texts that has
been a political football in the liturgy wars in recent years.
Harbert is part of the
restructuring of ICEL to bring it closer to the approach to translation
favored in Rome, which emphasizes fidelity to the Latin originals and protecting
the “uniformity of the Roman Rite.” Harbert had been among the critics
of the old ICEL, which reflected the outlook of the mainstream professional
liturgical community after the Second Vatican Council – flexible and evolving,
emphasizing adaptation to the needs of local cultures.
There’s no missing the
fact that Harbert’s appointment signals a change in philosophy. I caught
him after the votes on liturgical texts at the bishops’ meeting, where
the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the ordination rite
passed with virtually no debate or discussion, and asked what he thought
about the almost anti-climactic result. (Both texts have generated intense
controversy in recent years). Harbert said that he actually would have
preferred a bit more debate, since, he said, it was precisely the absence
of debate that critics of ICEL had long lamented. I allowed as to how debate
is always a good thing, and Harbert quickly added that in order to be constructive
this debate must above all be informed by the original texts.
Yet Harbert is no ideologue.
I asked him if it would be correct to say that the two translations approved
at this meeting were the first fruits of the “new ICEL.” He said yes, with
the proviso that the General Instruction was actually John Page’s last
project. Page was the former executive secretary of ICEL and was closely
identified with its approach. Yet, Harbert insisted, when the new philosophy
of translation embodied in the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam
became official policy, Page immediately organized ICEL’s work in light
of those principles. The translation of the General Instruction, Harbert
said, is testament to Page’s dedication as a “good and faithful servant.”
This concern to give
Page the credit he’s due speaks well of Harbert. It’s a reminder that we
can have disagreements in the Church, sometimes even painful ones, without
vilifying one another.
* * *
Speaking of my book Conclave,
I recently received a letter from the EWTN television network concerning
an event I narrate involving their legendary founder, Mother Angelica.
I wrote in the book that after Mother Angelica criticized the Eucharistic
teaching of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles on the air in 1997, “Mahony
forced her to sign a retraction and a promise not to do it again. Cardinal
John O’Connor of New York, a Mother Angelica supporter, was delegated to
personally take it to her in Alabama for signature.” This version was based
on information given me by a source very close to the events.
however, chairman of EWTN, wrote Oct. 30 to offer the following correction:
“It is true that Cardinal
O’Connor of New York met with Mother Angelica at EWTN in March 1998 in
an attempt to obtain a signed retraction, but the retraction was never
proffered to her, since it was clear from the cardinal’s conversation with
Mother Angelica that she would not in any event sign such a document.”
Steltemeier attests that he was present at the meeting.
I checked this with my
source, who was not present at the meeting, and who had simply assumed
that O’Connor was successful in obtaining a signature since he never heard
anything about it again. Hence I am prepared to accept Steltemeier’s word
that no such signature happened, and will make the correction in further
editions of Conclave. But rather than wait, I wanted to get the
word out here.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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