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Church in Crisis

No consensus on what to do next as sex scandals multiply


U.S. Catholics seeking a Holy Week respite from the sordid stories of clerical sexual abuse of minors got no relief. Instead, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, additional allegations were leveled against priests across the country, and bishops came under heightened scrutiny for the manner in which they deal with the priestly predators and their victims.

“We need a plan of action,” said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in an interview with USA Today. On that point -- the need for a comprehensive approach to a scandal that goes to the heart of episcopal legitimacy and lay morale -- Catholics of all stripes agreed. The bishops will take up the subject at their meeting in June.

But what precisely is on the table? Many see the scandal as a symptom of a deeper crisis requiring a full-scale reassessment of church practice and doctrine -- including such longstanding untouchable issues as priestly celibacy, the all-male priesthood and clerical authority.

Others look for a reassertion of leadership within current structures with an emphasis on priestly formation and straight talk in seminaries about the burdens and benefits of clerical chastity.

The bishops themselves face constraints on their collective ability to act, explained Msgr. Thomas Green, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America. Through their conference, the U.S. bishops have authority over local bishops in approximately 40 non-doctrinal areas, such as establishing the age to receive the sacrament of confirmation. However, no such authority exists in church law granting the conference binding authority over its individual members -- diocesan bishops -- on matters related to the sexual abuse of minors.

The church’s administrative structure is ill suited to dealing with a crisis of the current magnitude, argued Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “You have bishops who consider themselves to be autonomous, answering only to the pope, so they can take the principles they want from the national conference of bishops or they can leave them,” he told “The Lehrer Newshour.” Many such statements, principles and guidelines have been issued by the conference over the past decade.

“Then on the other side,” continued Appleby, “the Vatican has been reluctant in the past to really give binding authority even on such matters that don’t deal with doctrine or dogma, as this does not.”

Said Appleby: “The Vatican has to get behind the national conference to implement transparent policies that are accountable on this question, and I think also on the financial issue of how settlements are made and how the resources of the church are spent.”

Others see concerns about bureacracy and process as so much fiddling while the institution burns. “The bishops have got to find ways to exercise their authority differently,” said Capuchin Fr. Michael Crosby of Milwaukee. “The whole paradigm is breaking down -- there are huge fissures in it,” said Crosby, author of The Dysfunctional Church: Addiction and Codependency in the Family of Catholicism. Operating in a climate of fear and suspicion, said Crosby, there are many bishops “who don’t dare say what they really think” about such issues as clerical authority, celibacy and the all-male priesthood. “Society won’t allow it to continue,” predicted Crosby.

Some bishops apparently are daring to say things that they would not have spoken publicly just weeks ago. After a Mass in Long Beach, Calif., Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said that discussion of married priesthood remains open. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the cardinal said, “I’ve never said that we can’t discuss these things.” He noted that Eastern rite Catholic priests can marry and “It works out fine.”

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee wrote in a March 19 e-mail to priests, “Perhaps this will be the moment when the larger issue of priestly ministry in the church will be faced.”

He also mentioned Eastern Orthodox priests who marry and noted that married Episcopal priests who convert to Catholicism have been ordained.

Top-down reforms may be necessary, said Boston College theology professor Lisa Sowle Cahill, but they are not sufficient. “Who are the people who should have authority over what a bishop should do?” she asked. A bottom-up approach -- through parish councils and lay-led diocesan oversight commissions -- is another alternative.

Those who argue that clerical sexual abuse is a symptom of an authoritarian church are incorrect, argues papal biographer George Weigel. “It is exactly the opposite.”

The problem begins, and can be largely solved, he said, at its root: the seminary. “It seems clear to me that the reform of the seminaries needs to go further and deeper,” said Weigel. Such an approach would deemphasize the theraputic -- discussions of chastity are not something “that should be left to the staff psychiatrist” -- and highlight conversion. “Men who truly believe that they are what the Catholic church teaches that they are -- icons of Jesus Christ in the world -- do not behave like this.”

Beyond any discussion of solutions are the people in the pews, more than half of whom, according to a recent Zogby poll, disapprove of the way the bishops have managed revelations of clerical abuse. There is near unanimity on one issue: 83 percent of the 1,500 Catholics surveyed said that when they hear an allegation against a priest they tend to believe it.

Freelance writer Joe Feuerherd lives in Maryland.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002