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Santa Rosa: another warning for real reform

The bright side to the scandals that have rocked the Santa Rosa, Calif., diocese, is the maturity of the lay people who have had to look deep into their own wells of faith and experience to maintain their ties to the institution.

They are not exercising blind obedience. Emerging from their anger is a determined understanding of the deliberate steps necessary to begin the healing process. This is a community of Christian faith that has been assaulted, and the instincts run deep to forgiveness and to staying for the long haul.

At the same time, it is a community whose members have to be accountable daily to a litany of individuals and organizations: spouses, children, friends, employers, the church. They know how to provide accountability, and now they are, in turn, demanding it.

Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco and the rest of the American bishops should pay attention.

The only pastoral response that makes sense in Santa Rosa is one that takes seriously the call for structural reform and that opens the case of the missing money to a full and impartial investigation. The churc cannot credibly police itself in this case. Secred foreign bank accounts cannot simply be brushed aside as ineptitude.

The call for reform can succeed, however, only if it includes a sympathetic embrace of the thousands of good priests tarnished again by the fallout from clerical sexual misconduct, and of shocked Catholics, not least those who have seen their hard-earned money frittered away.

On the matter of sexual misconduct, we can only reinforce what we have said repeatedly over the past 15 years -- the clergy culture is in desperate need of some deep and honest discussion of the whole matter of sexuality and celibacy.

That is not to suggest that the celibacy requirement is the sole cause of sexual misconduct or to suggest it has a role in the more serious matter of sexual abuse, especially of children. At the same time, it is clear that disregard for celibacy is systemic and enduring.

On the matter of financial accountability, the path to a solution si more apparent. Time and again over the past 40 years, bishops and priests have shown themselves unworthy of the peoples’ financial trust. Either through incompetence or venality, diocese have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. From Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., and Reno-Las Vegas dioceses in the 1970s to the Corpus Christi, Texas, and Santa Rosa dioceses in the 1990s, the record is ample and depressing. And those are just the public ones.

After decades of dioceses periodically spinning down the fiscal drain, the bishops last November established an ad hoc committee to report on developing new forms of oversight.

Devising a transparent system that would guard against what happened in Santa Rosa will require bishops to acknowledge that American Catholics are all grown up now and know as much and more about financial management as bishops and their sometimes dubiously competent advisers.

We know of a Catholic multinational coporate executive who in the 1980s pulled together several of the most prominent catholic businessmen in the nation -- all of them his neighbors -- and wrote to the local bishop stating they would all be prepared to serve in some capacity as an advisory management/investment committe. Collectively they were worth tens of millions of dollars and handled billions.

The bishop didn’t even bother to reply.

While there are some notable exceptions, bishops fear letting go. They are reluctant to grant the laity organizational rights or organizational power sharing. The bishops fear a questioning laity.

Church leaders can gamble that Santa Rosa was a one-of-a-kind occurrence and continue going about business as usual. Or they can see it as one more warning that real reform is essential for the church’s health

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000