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Post-Dallas: Theologian: Despite high marks for charter, bishops exhibit ‘horrible moral failure’

Toledo, Ohio

A Toledo, Ohio-based theologian gives the U.S. bishops high marks on the “by and large very positive document” they approved in Dallas to protect children from clergy sex abuse. But he marks them down on three points.

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Murray/Bacik professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo. He is the author of five books, including three on the magisterium and church authority. Gaillardetz, a systematic theologian, says the document rightly stresses protection of children and “a preferential option, as it were, for the concerns of the victims of clerical sexual abuse.” He also lauds the document’s call for diligence in cooperating with civil authorities and the creation of a national review board.

However, Gaillardetz said the bishops exhibited “a horrible moral failure” in advocating a policy of zero tolerance and in not addressing the need for punitive measures directed at themselves.

His other criticism is that the bishops uncritically support the proposal to have American seminaries investigated for their treatment of “chastity” in priestly formation.

He acknowledged that the bishops were in a difficult position in Dallas, due to the pressure from the media and the strong public opinion that deluged them. “These voices created a kind of interpretative template for assessing what the bishops were going to do. By that I mean the success or failure of the bishops’ meeting -- even before they met -- was going to stand or fall on whether they went for so-called zero tolerance.”

Gaillardetz said that was unfortunate, and he contends that even after the document’s release “too much attention was placed on that particular element in the charter.” He said the case of Toledo priest Robert Fisher is a good example of why the bishops’ policy went too far in removing from ministry any priest guilty of even a single case of sexual abuse.

“I think that aspect of the charter was very much motivated by external public pressure, and as a result, the bishops’ policy glossed over some important distinctions between priests who are serial offenders and priests who have committed an offense one time in the distant past and have dealt fully with the consequences of their action, civilly, ecclesiastically and spiritually. It would seem that some of these priests could be placed in a carefully monitored setting where parishioners would be fully informed of the priest’s past.”

Gaillardetz, who is married and the father of four young sons, cited the prior treatment of Fisher’s case as a “good example of how you do it right: You inform people of the individual’s past and the way in which it has been dealt with, and you let the people decide if they want to trust this priest in this situation.”

Another significant shortcoming of the charter, he said, was the bishops’ decision to adopt such a strict policy on priests’ behavior while not addressing at all “the need for punitive measures directed toward bishops guilty of shuffling around priests they knew had questionable records.”

“I find that unconscionable,” Gaillardetz said. “I just don’t understand how you can hold the priest to such a strict standard and in no way address bishops’ culpability.”

He acknowledged that the difficulty is, in part, canonical: The episcopal conference doesn’t have the authority to remove bishops. But he says the charter “could have at least called for the creation of a Vatican policy for removing bishops who were grossly negligent in the way they handled the reassignment of known sex offenders.”

“If the priest is removed from a ministry for a past act of abuse, and the bishop was guilty of reassigning this priest or of covering up his deeds, then that bishop should be removed as well. I just don’t see any way around it,” Gaillardetz told NCR.

He is also critical of the bishops’ approval of a proposal made at the earlier Rome meeting between the American cardinals and Vatican officials. The cardinals proposed that upcoming apostolic visitations of American seminaries focus on investigating the moral formation of seminarians in chastity.

“This suggests that this whole problem is to be laid at the feet of seminaries or is to be reduced to individual moral failings,” he said.

“A far more fruitful investigation would explore the ways in which current church structures and policies have artificially limited the pool of candidates for the priesthood and have sustained and encouraged a clerical culture that inhibits the accountability of priests and bishops to the whole people of God.”

Tom Kelly is a Toledo freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002