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Church in Crisis

Bishops struggle to fashion sex abuse policy


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will meet in Dallas June 13-15 to craft a national policy on clerical sexual abuse, but to many Americans even the toughest policy may seem too little too late, making the Dallas conference perhaps the most formidable public relations challenge a national meeting of Catholic bishops has ever faced in this country.

With their credibility eroded, and with new revelations of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by superiors appearing regularly in the media, the bishops are under pressure to act boldly and decisively to repair public trust in the church’s ministers. At the same time many bishops acknowledge that there is no magic bullet that will lay the scandal to rest.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called lay involvement crucial to rebuilding confidence in the church; some observers predict that one of the most tangible outcomes of the conference will be a national board composed of prominent lay Catholics to set standards on how dioceses should handle allegations of sex abuse.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Bishop Joseph Galante, coadjutor of the Dallas diocese, said proposals for a new sex abuse policy will include immediate notification of allegations of abuse to law enforcement and the creation of a national databank of priests guilty of sex abuse in order to study sexual abuse in dioceses and seminaries. Galante is a member of the bishops’ ad hoc committee on sexual abuse. A draft of the new policy is expected to be made public June 4. Archbishop Harry Flynn of the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, chairman of the ad hoc committee, did not return calls by NCR nor did other members of the committee who were contacted.

To help resolve the scandal, research sociologist William D’Antonio said the bishops must establish lay boards at the parish and diocesan level that are not only consultative but decision-making.

“What I think bishops have needed to do, and I don’t see any sign that this is happening, is that they have to decide that the laity have a rightful place in the governance of the church in matters such as these,” said D’Antonio, the co-author of American Catholics: Gender, Generation, and Commitment.

Imesch solicits opinions

At least in some dioceses, heightened efforts to consult with the laity are already taking place. In Joliet, Ill., Bishop Joseph Imesch said he was soliciting the opinions of the Catholic faithful in his diocese in preparation for the meeting in Dallas and had sent a letter to every parish council in the diocese.

“Every bishop is pretty determined that we will do something to help people get through this terrible time,” Imesch said. “We know we’re not going to go there and come back with some kind of mild statement. We want this to be over as much as anyone else does.”

But like several other bishops, Imesch dismissed the idea that the Dallas conference would put an end to the sex abuse scandal. “We’re not going to be able to put [the scandal] behind us. We’re going to address it. It’s still going to be there and it’s not going to go away. We have to just prove that we’re serious about our concern for the safety of children.”

Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of Detroit, said both individually and as a conference, Roman Catholic bishops in the United States need to be more forthright about their failures during the past 15 to 20 years and accept responsibility for them. “My reading of the various statements that have come out from individual bishops and Rome is it’s still too much ‘If something happened, we’re sorry.’

“Bishops who were overseeing all of this made tremendous mistakes, mistakes that had profound, hurtful results for many, many people,” said Gumbleton. “Many people have the sense that the bishops have yet not taken full responsibility for what they did that was wrong. That’s what makes many people angry. No bishop has really said, ‘Yes, I made these terrible mistakes, and if that’s serious enough to resign, I’ll resign.’ That’s what needs to be done at some point.”

Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., called for bishops to deal with the scandal before them “publicly, honestly, openly and humbly.”

With each bishop answerable only to the pope, Clark questioned whether a national policy was possible, given the autonomy bishops possess. “The bishops could commit themselves to a policy unanimously. My best understanding is if one bishop said no, I don’t think he’d be obliged to go along,” Clark said. “I don’t think that [a national policy] is likely to happen for that reason. That’s not to say we won’t come out with a very strong statement.”

Charles Clohessy, national director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said, “We’re not tremendously optimistic. These are largely the same men who got us into this mess to begin with.”

The importance of experts

Clohessy said most bishops are well aware of the need for diocesan review boards and most dioceses already have them, but they often suffer from the same problems as diocesan policies on clerical sexual abuse. “The basic problem is often they’re ignored, bypassed. They’re given inadequate information and they hear from church leaders as opposed to victims,” Clohessy said.

Fr. Raymond O’Brien, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America, said the bishops’ meeting in Dallas is likely to establish a lay board composed of prominent Catholics to set standards for diocesan review panels. O’Brien mentioned former FBI director Louis Freeh and Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon as likely appointees and said he hoped the bishops would also appoint clergy and non-Catholics to such a board.

Despite public attention to the formulation of a zero tolerance policy for priests guilty of sexual abuse, O’Brien said the option of enacting such a policy as a way of proving the church’s commitment to protecting the safety of children will soon become moot as state legislatures move to lift statutes of limitations on sexual abuse. O’Brien said he expects greater protection of due process for accused priests will result from the meeting in Dallas and said bishops must confront the theological basis for the scandal.

“We need to go back to that and ask why was it the message we preach is not being heard by the priests who are expected to preach it,” O’Brien said. “The church’s view of sexuality is that it should be confined to marriage and, obviously, individuals over the age of 18 who are in a state of consent. All of a sudden you have agents in that church who are not only engaged in sex outside marriage but, secondly, with individuals less than 18 years of age. How could this be?”

An expert in family law who has written articles about AIDS, pedophilia and the rights of children, O’Brien said most of the reports of clerical sexual abuse that have come to light recently are not cases of pedophilia but the sexual abuse of minors. Most of the victims are male and most are not children, he observed.

Sin and scandal

“There are many professions who use their profession to gain intimate contact with victims. That is not unique to priesthood,” O’Brien said. “Yet at the same time do we not hold ourselves out as better than others? Yes. There is a confusion in the theology. I lay this at the feet of the bishops. … What is serious enough to consider sin? Where have we missed the point that this is a sin?”

O’Brien predicted greater scrutiny of Catholic finances and charities in the future as a result of the scandal and said the privacy of the confessional would soon become a legal issue that the bishops would have to confront.

“The whole culture has changed,” said O’Brien. “The idea of taking a young person alone anywhere -- those days are gone.”

While Catholics don’t appear to be leaving the church because of the scandal, O’Brien said the toll on priests’ morale and the future recruitment of priests is still an open question, as is the effect on those who have been abused. “What’s coming to light is horrific,” O’Brien said.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002