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Bishops face difficult journey toward a moment of truth

This is, I think, spiraling out of control. I don’t know where it’s going to go,” said the e-mail, referring to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“To a moment of truth,” said the reply from a priest friend. “We will need faith and courage.”

That exchange could stand in for the sentiment passed among Catholics all over this country. The thought of arriving at a moment of truth through this horrible period is as many parts a wish as it is a conviction. For the sad reality is that this story is not new, it did not begin in Boston two months ago, but first emerged nationally 17 years ago.

The leadership of this church, stumbling over itself once again to convince a weary flock of its sorrow over another round of sordid details and broken trust, has had a long time to find the path toward honesty, integrity and accountability. It has so far failed miserably. The leadership of this church must understand that the old approaches will not get them to that moment of truth.

No one seems to know for sure why the scandal has exploded anew in Boston. Perhaps it is due to the concentrated attention of the media in the Northeast. Perhaps it is the fact that it involved Cardinal Bernard Law, one of the most powerful churchmen in the United States with powerful connections in Rome. Certainly some of the difference has to do with the unusual release of archdiocesan documents by the courts in the case of the former Boston priest John Geoghan (NCR, Feb. 1). In those documents Catholics and others were able to read the raw, unedited conversation of leaders trying to deal with the problem. The picture that emerges is a shameful one in which victims are disregarded and abusing priests are protected.

Whatever caused it, the new explosion of revelations has shifted the ecclesial landscape in a way that will not allow the hierarchy to return to business as usual. They have lost too much credibility, they have been exposed as dishonest and arrogant until forced to issue apologies.

“Where does it go from here?”

In recent weeks, sorrow has rained down from pulpits in a gush of publicized apologies. Priests who before would only say such things privately have begun openly calling for reconsideration of church rules on ordination. They have openly decried the lack of leadership among the bishops, and they have initiated discussions in their parish halls of issues that for years parishioners were told could not be discussed.

Bishops have begun appearing on television using such words as accountability and transparency. Those are words that do not apply at the present to the way the bishops conduct their business. In recent years they have increasingly become insular, secretive and primarily focused on the kind of in-house issues that the Vatican deems important.

Accountability does not happen in a culture where so much -- from the appointment of leaders to decisions on the most minute questions of how people pray -- depends on secrecy.

This crisis is mainly a crisis of leadership, a crisis of hierarchy.

It will not do this time for the bishops to go off at the spring meeting behind closed doors and think that somehow the group that has been at the heart of the scandal will find its way clear. No right-minded pastor would give such direction to a hurting individual or group. No one would ask a dysfunctional family to lock itself away in discussion and arrive at an answer to its problems.

It will not do this time to devise a legal or public relations strategy. After 17 years of half measures, it ought to be clear that something much deeper is needed.

The answer is not exotic or unprecedented. The bishops should look to their own past, to studies they themselves have commissioned and then ignored when they didn’t like the results. They should call in the wealth of expertise they have among the priests of this country. Many have been in the forefront of dealing with other members of the clergy with serious problems.

This, of course, cannot be left solely in the hands of clergy. Not if the bishops hope to regain any credibility -- and they should not underestimate how serious the credibility problem has become.

Though some members of the current conference might put up strong resistance to the idea, the bishops must invite credible lay professionals -- men and women -- of appropriate disciplines to join in the discussions and the study. And they should not turn from any questions. Already two church leaders -- Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland (see story Page 3) have said the issue of married clergy should be discussed. Such a radical departure from current practice would require standing up to Rome, something the bishops have not shown much stomach for in recent years.

Discussions should be open, and any findings widely disseminated.

When the bishops meet this spring, it should not be to find a quick fix, but to chart a course through the difficult task ahead.

The people of God have been severely tested. They don’t want to see any more television apologies. They don’t want any more lurching from crisis to crisis.

They want to be able again to trust and believe. They want to know their leaders have come to that moment of truth. But this time they know that moment won’t come quickly or easily.

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002