Solutions that make matters worse
Facing a widespread uprising of Catholic laity and a relentless media, the U.S. bishops seem to be edging toward the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy for clergy sex abuse at their June meeting. As Pope John Paul II said last month to the American cardinals in Rome, there is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm the young. Looking ahead, it makes sense for the bishops not to equivocate on clergy abuse. Catholic parents need assurances their children will be safe.
However, when it comes to accusations dating back many years or even decades, the bishops might be wiser to study each case on its own merits.
The adoption of an absolute policy might provide needed relief but it could also lead to further abuse. Would it serve the interests of the Catholic community or that communitys sense of justice to enforce the most severe punishment for a priest who may have acted in an improper manner many years ago but who has since established a clean record? Crimes need to be treated as crimes, but there are well-established reasons in Western law for statutes of limitations. The wiser course may be to scrutinize each case carefully. We worry about policies enacted under pressure that end up devoid of human assessment and the need to make distinctions in acts or patterns of human behavior.
While we have persistently pressed for more hierarchical accountability in this area, we also fear that a simplistic one-size-fits-all policy will end up in the future looking a lot like the notoriously failed three strikes and youre out policy that has filled U.S. prisons in recent years.
A deeper problem with the discussions -- or rather, lack of discussions -- in recent weeks has been the episcopal focus on how fast and under what circumstance to throw out priests. They are missing a crucial point. As pained as Catholics are in dealing with the clergy abuse issue, they are even more pained by the failure of their bishops to protect their children. They are being forced to acknowledge unbelievable patterns of cover-up and denial that persisted over decades. Catholics are looking for answers. They are demanding accountability.
In this light, the Vatican meeting last month, which did not address the role of the bishops in the scandal, is being viewed by many as the latest incident in a longer pattern of denial. It now looks like the pattern will extend to the U.S. bishops June meeting. Short of a thorough episcopal self-examination coupled with serious efforts to open up and involve the laity in future discussions, the bishops seem to be making matters worse. They are certainly not showing evidence that they grasp the seriousness of the moment. Nor are they indicating that they yet have what it takes to lead the church to restored health.
If the June sessions are dominated by zero-tolerance discussions, the bishops will have once more avoided the truly pressing questions at hand, chief among them: What allowed this to happen in the first place? To answer this question and many others related to it requires a commitment to openness and inclusion that the church has not seen in a long time. It is the closed atmosphere in which the bishops operate, it is their unwillingness to allow themselves to be assessed from the outside that upsets and discourages ordinary Catholics.
If the bishops do not open up the discussions, they cannot reestablish trust. If the bishops do not allow outsiders to walk with them, to work with them, to help them define the problems at hand, they are almost certainly not going to find solutions that will help move the church forward. Without major changes in attitude toward the laity, any solutions the bishops come up with will be considered skeptically.
Without properly framing the problems, solutions are likely to be simplistic. Worse, they can lead to dangerous and even injurious thinking. We find, for example, very disturbing that some Catholic prelates are now floating the idea of rooting out gays from the Catholic clergy and forbidding young gay Catholics from becoming priests. The not-so-subtle implication here is that gay priests are more inclined than heterosexual priests to act out their sexuality. No supporting evidence is offered to back up the claim.
Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia has raised this flag. He stated last month that gays are not suitable for the priesthood, even if they remain celibate. His explanation was that they do not give up family and marriage, as heterosexuals are required. According to Bevilacqua, what the gay candidate for the priesthood gives up is what the church considers an aberration, a moral evil.
All such talk will do is muddy the picture, not provide any clarity and it will provide convenient scapegoats. Far more responsible commentators have already noted the need to discuss the implications of increasing numbers of homosexuals in the clergy ranks. Such discussions would be valuable if they are approached honestly and in the spirit of learning and helping, not seeking vengeance against those of a certain sexual orientation.
In real terms, a purge of gay priests is highly unlikely. Any such effort would quickly lead to a frenzy of finger-pointing. We concur with Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop of the Detroit archdiocese, who said that these kinds of statements contradict existing church policy. All homosexual persons have a right to be welcomed into the community, to hear the word of God, and to receive pastoral care, the U.S. bishops wrote in a 1997 pastoral message to the parents of homosexual children. Said Gumbleton, I dont know how we could tell parents to accept their children and then we wont accept them.
Finally, it is important to remember that our priests and bishops are hurting, perhaps as never before. It is tragic that the Catholic clergy, filled with men who have given their lives for the service of others, is being so tarnished.
Lay voices are proliferating. This is a healthy sign and needs to be encouraged. The widespread calls by laity for episcopal accountability might also be seen by the hierarchy as a sign of growth and health. Most laypeople speaking out and getting involved are doing so in attempts to heal and in response to the need for greater unity among clergy and laity alike.
National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002