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Post-Dallas: Priests question fairness of policy


Those most directly affected by the bishops’ new “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” -- Catholic priests in this country -- voiced both support for the document and reservations. Many priests said they thought the bishops had dealt with the issues before them honestly and openly. But many of those NCR interviewed raised questions about the fairness of the bishops’ strict zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse and said that the bishops should have addressed more squarely their own responsibility for the crisis.

The charter approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at their annual meeting in Dallas June 13-15 excludes from ministry all priests guilty of sex abuse, requires the bishops to turn over all allegations of sex abuse to civil authorities, and calls for the creation of a new national office to audit dioceses’ adherence to the policies set forth in the charter. A new national lay board (see story on Page 10) will oversee the work of the new Office for Child and Youth Protection.

Even among the bishops, reactions to the tough new standards set forth in the charter were more mixed than the lopsided vote of 239 to 13 in favor of the charter would indicate. Particularly controversial was the provision calling for the blanket exclusion from ministry of all priests guilty of sex abuse regardless of special circumstances that might apply in individual cases.

Bishop Joseph Sullivan, auxiliary of Brooklyn, N.Y., said his fellow bishops had arrived at a “standard of unforgiveness,” echoing criticisms made by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., and several others. Even among those who spoke for approval of the charter, there was a discernible lack of enthusiasm for some aspects of it.

“It’s necessary to pass this policy with its flaws, some very deep flaws indeed,” said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

Fr. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, observed that in voting on a national policy the bishops found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Good priests will feel they are bearing the brunt of what is in some measure the bishops’ own failure, said Silva, who regretted that bishops had not made themselves as fully accountable for their misdeeds as priests will be made for theirs.

“They’re going to have to be very careful about how they enforce this,” Silva said of the bishops’ new policy, which he said could potentially alienate priests from their bishops. Silva said that with the zero tolerance provision in effect, priests who may have committed offenses in the past will not feel they can come forward and confide in their bishop.

Fr. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, Mass., praised the clear, unambiguous apology to victims but said lingering questions about fairness and due process remain. “You worry also about false accusations. What happens when an unproven charge is denied by a priest?”

Bullock said a reservation many priests have is the same point raised by Hubbard in Dallas -- that there are priests who decades ago committed some kind of sexual offense, repented of their crime and were rehabilitated, have functioned honorably in ministry for years with no threat of recurrence, and who because of the charter will now be removed.

In St. Louis, Fr. Paul Philibert voiced similar concerns. “The fact that we’re willing to put aside priests who for 20 or 30 years have been able to exercise a useful and holy ministry and suddenly pull the rug out from them because of something that happened decades ago is almost too painful to contemplate,” said Philibert, a Dominican priest and visiting professor of church and society at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

Fr. Walter Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, Mass., said some priests feel they’ve been hung out to dry while the bishops walk off scot-free. “This whole crisis can’t be just on the backs of the priests. It also has to be on the backs of the bishops who mishandled this crisis.”

Our Lady Help of Christians merged in 1997 with St. Jean L’Evangeliste, a French church that once had the notorious child molester Fr. Paul Shanley as its pastor. As a pastor of a congregation that includes many of Shanley’s victims, Cuenin says the parish has worked extensively on issues of healing and reconciliation. Cuenin called for greater dialogue within the church as well as more accountability. The crisis in the church today has become a crisis of leadership and accountability, not sex abuse, he said.

“I don’t think the American people will be able to put trust back in the leadership of the church if some bishops do not resign or leave the ministry,” Cuenin said.

Nonetheless, “I give the bishops a lot of credit because I think they were struggling with a very difficult issue. The public is so angry they won’t hear of any nuance,” he said. Remarking that “zero tolerance is not a Christian concept,” Cuenin said that in their hearts most bishops recognize that as well.

In Kansas City, Mo., Fr. Norman Rotert, pastor of Visitation Church, said the bishops’ new policy was not unexpected. “I think politically it was necessary. I don’t think it’s wise, nor do I think it’s church,” he said. Rotert said he wanted the bishops to turn their attention to implementing the reforms of Vatican II and was disappointed that the bishops had not addressed some of the issues underlying the leadership crisis.

Many priests said the sex abuse scandal was creating widespread demoralization among priests and worried about the effects both on those now in ministry and on future vocations.

Like Silva of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, Philibert said he was concerned about a widening gulf between priests and bishops. “A number of diocesan priests are profoundly disheartened,” Philibert said. “Some bishops are being perceived more like a judge than a brother. The very nature of the public pressures that have come upon the church have been to distance bishops from their priests at a time when priests most need bishops to be a support to them.”

In Newton, Cuenin said relations between priests and bishops could not get much lower. A member of the Priests’ Forum, a group of priests who began meeting in the Boston archdiocese in the fall of 2001 to share experiences, Cuenin said the forum emerged because of a pent-up need to talk about issues affecting priests. “The priesthood as we know it is disintegrating. And who can even say what the impact is going to be for vocations? This kind of crisis won’t be healed for years and years,” Cuenin said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002