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Post-Dallas: Bishops offer tough policy on abuse


The June 13-15 meeting here of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was perhaps one of the most important and certainly one of the most well-publicized meetings in the recent history of the conference. Hundreds of reporters flocked to Dallas for the meeting, which was televised on CNN and C-Span.

In addition to the establishment of a national policy on sex abuse, there were other “firsts.” The conference heard emotional testimony from the victims of clerical sex abuse and heard from a psychologist who specializes in treating adult survivors. It also listened to lectures by two lay speakers, who delivered critical, no-holds-barred analyses of how a growing alienation between the laity and the hierarchy had enabled the sex abuse scandal to spin out of control.

The bishops approved the new “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” by an overwhelming majority of 239-13. The charter requires bishops to turn over any allegation of sexual abuse to civil authorities and excludes any priest guilty of sex abuse from continuing in ministry. The charter calls for independent lay review boards in every diocese and a national Office for Child and Youth Protection to assist dioceses in the implementation of “safe environment” programs and to audit dioceses’ adherence to the policies set forth in the charter. Overseen by a new lay review board, the office will publish an annual public report on dioceses’ implementations of the charter’s standards. The charter also calls for a study of the nature and scope of the sex abuse problem within the Catholic church.

In conjunction with the charter, the bishops also established a lay-run commission to monitor and investigate handling of sex abuse cases in the nation. (See story below.)

The charter does not require Vatican approval, but the accompanying norms do. These were sent to Rome for a papal recognitio that would make them legally binding. The norms are a set of procedures the bishops will follow in implementing the charter.

The bishops issued an unflinching apology for the scandal. “The church in the United States is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times. The sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the ways in which we bishops addressed these crimes and sins, have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion,” the charter began. It went on to call for dioceses and eparchies to reach out to victims and their families to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.

Coming after months in which the bishops appeared to equivocate about their role in the scandal, the tough standards and forthright, contrite apology contained in the charter seemed to mark a new, concerted effort on the part of the bishops to fully acknowledge and address the crisis.

However, the first day of the conference struck some observers as equally noteworthy. That day the bishops heard from victims of sex abuse and listened to talks by Commonweal magazine editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, Notre Dame professor R. Scott Appleby, and psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea.

Appleby denounced clericalism and the “arrogance that comes with unchecked power” and said the very mission of the church was at stake in the current crisis. An alienation that had developed over the past 35 years between the laity and the hierarchy had created the conditions for a crisis of leadership that went far beyond the issue of sex abuse, he said. His calls for reform were echoed by Steinfels, who urged the bishops to build accountability and transparency into diocesan and parish governance.

Frawley-O’Dea’s account of the effects of childhood sex abuse on victims also challenged the bishops to look at their own failures and errors.

The straight talk by laypeople to the bishops, all of it delivered under the glare of cameras televising the proceedings, was a departure from previous bishops’ meetings and seemed to mark an unusual degree of openness on the part of a group frequently considered closed and secretive.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

For more information:

National Catholic Reporter

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Voice of the Faithful

SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002