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Toward a healthy church, step by step

Nothing we do now will be enough,” a bishop privately said recently. “They want an execution.”

It must feel that way for a lot of Catholic clerics today. The sex abuse crisis seems relentless, every newspaper and electronic media outlet in the country is trying to get its fix on the scandal, wondering what went on in its own territory that remains hidden.

Suspicion runs deep. Priests feel beat up. Catholic laypeople are embarrassed and angry.

The whole church in the United States aches for Pentecost.

Who, in this circumstance, would not welcome a manifestation of the Spirit in some spectacular way? Not to put limits on the action of the Divine, but the way through this crisis will likely come not in some magical stroke, but in gathering ourselves, in all of our humanity, and moving step by step, knowing that the journey will take the full measure of our wit and our prayers.

One of those steps will require the bishops to be open in their discussions and to begin listening to those who dare speak truth to power within the church.

Our cover story this issue illustrates that the bishops had access to some vital and sound information regarding the sex abuse crisis in 1985. How much was taken seriously by how many is not known. Discussions were held behind closed doors, and it appears that none of the recommendations was taken seriously for many years.

As important, perhaps, as the missed opportunity is the clear message that was sent to at least one of the authors of the report, Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle, a priest who remains extraordinary in his willingness to buck the mores of the church’s leadership culture.

Doyle was on the fast track to an important position in the church, a canonist in the nuncio’s office in Washington, when he first encountered the sex abuse crisis.

Doyle and Fr. Michael Peterson and Attorney Ray Mouton -- a canon lawyer, a priest psychiatrist experienced in dealing with troubled priests and a civil lawyer familiar with clergy sex abuse cases -- spent months developing a comprehensive document on how to deal with the then-already mounting crisis. By all evidence their work was ignored.

Less than a year after the report was compiled, Doyle had lost his teaching position at The Catholic University of America and was out of his job at the nunciature. No one ever pronounced a quid-pro-quo, but the clergy culture understands the message. Doyle was off the career track, ostracized. His boss, Archbishop Pio Laghi, who was nuncio during the period when the scandal was exploding but did little if anything to demand accountability, returned to Rome and was rewarded with a cardinal’s hat and a top job at a Vatican congregation.

That’s the culture the U.S. bishops are still up against -- that and their own reluctance to take on this difficult subject and to scrutinize the clergy culture.

They’re also up against Vatican presumptions, most recently stated by Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (see story Page 7), which makes him the Vatican’s top canon lawyer.

In brief, Herranz, an Opus Dei prelate, views the problem as a product of an overzealous press, a justice system that does not draw adequate distinctions between a priest’s role as church leader and his private life, money-hungry litigants and, at the bottom of it all, homosexuals.

While there may be hints of truth in some of his comments, Herranz’s points give voice, in the context of this scandal, to a familiar Roman dislike of and misunderstanding of American institutions and processes.

Of course, his comments also reflected that attitude and arrogance that enabled the abuses in the first place and the subsequent cover-up: a presumption that the clergy are above account, concern primarily for the reputation of the institution and the priests, no mention of the effect of abuse on victims, and an insistence that the problem not be used to raise issues of ecclesiastical reform.

The U.S. bishops have found themselves in a swirl of apologies and attempts to reach out to those hurt by priest abusers because they have failed to make difficult choices in the past. This latest round of scandals may have them on the defensive, but they can begin to redeem their credibility by ignoring the escape hatches Rome may try to provide and by listening to those who may yet dare to tell them the truth.

Serious reform is needed. Openness and accountability are needed. The voices of men and women, lay and religious, single and married, are needed in their decision-making circles.

No one thing the bishops can do will be enough. But they can begin placing one correct step in front of the other.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002