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Don’t expect change at meeting, some say


Nothing short of the bishops donning sackcloth and ashes in a public display of repentance for sex abuse by priests will satisfy some critics. However, those expecting the U.S. bishops to make significant changes at their spring meeting are probably unrealistic.

In the face of what is being called the worst crisis ever to hit the U.S. church, the bishops will gather in Dallas June 13-15 to try to stop the bleeding that each passing day seems to be getting heavier as more allegations are reported.

NCR talked with two bishops and several church observers to learn their predictions of how the bishops at their meeting would deal with the crisis.

Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., said decisive action must be taken by his brother bishops to restore credibility.

“As far as I’m concerned, sexual abuse of a minor is a rape -- a rape pure and simple.” Sullivan said, “and a person should be accountable to the law, not just to the church, but to the civil law. I told our priests 15 years ago that if any of them committed such actions that I’d be happy to visit them in prison.

“In other words we have to take this thing seriously. We seem to act gingerly with these priests.”

Sullivan said bishops should be given the power to quickly laicize a pedophile priest. Currently a bishop must submit a case to a prolonged juridical trial.

While action in the face of charges of sexual abuse “should be swift,” Sullivan said the bishops must also protect priests from false accusations.

Sullivan added his voice to the chorus of scholars and journalists calling for an open dialogue at the June meeting. “The only way we’re going to be credible is to be open and honest,” he said. “The day of hiding this and pretending it doesn’t happen is gone.”

Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said a lot of unrealistically high expectations are being put on this June meeting.

“I’m not sure exactly what the bishops can do other than talk,” Reese said. “Frankly, I would be nervous if guidelines are drawn up with this short notice and without having wide discussion,” he added. “This is an organization with 300 members. It acts very slowly, and when it acts fast it can do dumb things.

“I think much more important is what every bishop does in his own diocese. They’re dealing with very, very complicated legal and psychological issues. I’m not sure the bishops can come up with a quick fix that will stop the blood from gushing.”

Some observers say there is no precedent in the U.S. church to compare to the current scandal.

“Certainly there have been crisis moments in the church, but nothing that’s an internal crisis of this magnitude,” said Kathleen M. Joyce, a Catholic on the faculty of Duke University’s School of Religion in Durham, N.C. “Some people have compared it to the Reformation. I don’t think it’s quite that, but there really is no historical parallel that I can think of for this kind of challenge to business as usual within the administration and structure of the church.”

Joyce said “a real gesture of penance” might help the bishops take charge of the “kinds of images” that the media will associate with this story. She says a service “with signs of them asking for forgiveness” could be powerful imagery.

Jesuit Fr. Gerald Fogarty a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on American Catholic history, said his research in the Vatican archives uncovered just one reference to a “case of what we would call pedophilia.”

“My own sense is that this is a new problem,” he said. “I’m not saying that it didn’t exist in the past. I’m only saying that it didn’t have these same proportions.”

Fogarty, who says Mass at three Charlottesville parishes, said his “pastoral sense” is that the people in the pews are supporting their local parish priest, “but they’re very angry with the bishops.”

The bishops, he said, should try to set uniform rules for dealing with priests who are proven pedophiles. “They know now there is no cure for this,” he said. “They can only be treated. No priest with proven charges against him should be reassigned to a parish where he would have contact with children. I think that should be made a national norm.”

However, Fogarty said, because the Vatican doesn’t grant legislative power to bishops’ conferences, the U.S. bishops are limited in how they can respond to the crisis. The conference is “a place where they confer, and the Holy See does not want it having legislative power,” he said. “The only way in which the conference decision can bind the entire hierarchy is if there’s an absolutely unanimous decision or if their majority decision without unanimity is approved by the Holy See. So, sooner or later, the Holy See gets involved.

“A conference as such cannot legislate. It’s hamstrung. And in a case like this, it illustrates part of the problem. They can offer guidelines, not make policy.”

Fogarty said the bishops could put “a system in place that can immediately investigate, turning over information to the police because it is a criminal action, but, by the same token, making sure that the rights of a falsely accused priest are protected.”

Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville, Ky., said the bishops “need to recognize that trust has been broken,” and it must be restored “through action and not just words.”

“Apologies are important,” Kelly said, “but won’t mean much if people continue to be hurt.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002