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Cover story
Church in Crisis

Chicago laity denounce bishops’ betrayal of trust


“We have seen too little accountability, too much privilege. Our shepherds are more concerned with the paint on the ranch house than the well-being of their flocks. … What faith we might have had in our leaders has been broken, broken, broken.”

The speaker, Julie Drew, a public schoolteacher, was one of the scores that addressed a packed room of 300 at St. Joseph’s School in suburban Wilmette, Ill., May 21. This was one of 38 sites in the Chicago archdiocese where laity were urged to voice their concerns and suggestions about the priest abuse scandal. And everywhere, it seemed, the major and most passionate topic was the hierarchy’s betrayal of trust.

“We have an institutionalized, systemic cover-up, said Betty Vitale, a social worker, at the Wilmette gathering. She expressed fear that whatever policies the bishops develop at their meeting in June will have “slick cover-ups built into them.”

“The church has abrogated all trust,” said a former school principal from Winnetka. “Our institutional leaders have put their needs above the needs of the people of God.”

A recovery of trust will come only from a binding national policy, said an elderly Wilmette man, who declared that clergy, laity and religious must participate in its development and implementation. He also called for a nationwide forum on the selection process for bishops, the ordination of women and homosexuals and remarriage after divorce. “The bishops must become full partners with the people of God,” he said.

The archdiocesan hearings were authorized by Cardinal Francis George to provide lay input for the June meeting. They were moderated by members of the Chicago Catholic Lawyers Guild, who taped all the sessions and will compile a summary for George. The cardinal declined to attend any of the hearings lest his presence “inhibit” speakers, said a spokesman. His absence was duly noted by speakers in Wilmette and elsewhere.

“Our leaders need to see our faces, hear our voices, empathize with our pain, our anger,” said one woman. Added a physician who has treated abused children, “I’m sorry there’s no one here in red. They need to understand why we’ve lost trust in church leaders.”

Although many sites were packed, only 50 attended the one at St. Margaret Mary, a large, middle-class parish on Chicago’s north side. Here as in Wilmette and at other sites, there were mixed feelings about the proposed zero-tolerance policy, which would permanently remove a priest from all ministry after just one substantiated charge. Some argued it was the only way to go, given the mood of the laity; others said it was too rigid and would only provide “a convenient legalism” for bishops to “hide behind.”

“There’s got to be room for forgiveness,” said a man at Holy Name Cathedral where about 100 attended the hearing. Another agreed with him in principle but recommended “zero tolerance for bishops who cover up abuse.” At several sites speakers called explicitly for the resignation of Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston, Edward Egan of New York and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles as a necessary prerequisite for regaining trust.

The charge of homosexual priests as abusers was raised at many sites but was frequently rebutted by other speakers. Said a retired schoolteacher at St. Margaret Mary, “This is not about homosexuality. The perpetrators did not have access to young girls as they did to young boys. And we are only now beginning to hear from women who have been abused. The bishops must not allow this to be turned into a witch hunt for gay priests.”

Robert McClory is an NCR special report writer who lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002