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Commentary: It is the laity’s hour to shepherd us to a renewed church


As the bishops gathered in Dallas for arguably the most critical meeting in the history of the U.S. bishops’ conference, the historians among them may have remembered something Benedict Gaetani, better known as Pope Boniface VIII, wrote some 700 years ago: “All history shows clearly the hostility of the laity toward the clergy” (Clericos Laicos).

The anger many Catholics feel today toward their bishops and the priest abusers of children and teenagers would seem to confirm Gaetani’s cynical observation. But until this third round of clergy sexual abuse -- the Gilbert Gauthe scandal of the early 1980s in Louisiana being the first and the 1992 James Porter case in Massachusetts the second -- U.S. Catholics generally respected their bishops and trusted their priests. But in the present climate, not even the Dallas heat could take the chill of the laity’s outrage and hostility out of the bishops’ bones. The climate, the bishops understood clearly now, had changed dramatically, and their once-unchallenged authority and considerable prestige continued to unravel as the chorus of clergy abuse cases rose as an almost daily mantra since January.

Painfully conscious of the dramatic sea change, their president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, acknowledged the role many of them had played in returning priest offenders to pastoral assignments with access to children, and echoed the abject apology many of the bishops had made to their local churches.

In light of many episcopal pronouncements relating to the current crisis, Gregory’s opening statement in Dallas was extraordinary in both its candor and tone -- not a hint of arrogance or defensiveness. He came across as sincere and forthright, giving many who heard him the hope that an authentic leader was surfacing in the U.S. hierarchy

Gregory’s message was clear. The bishops were prepared to address the scandal with as strong a national policy as they could muster. The present rash of abuse by clergy was to be brought to a crashing halt, whatever the price might be.

The result was a policy statement titled “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and 12 norms for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse of minors by church personnel. Although almost two decades late, both are significant steps in the right direction, and their implementation should prove effective in curtailing further abuse and the human suffering and shattering of innocence that lies in the wake of clerical betrayal -- especially the betrayal of the church’s most vulnerable souls. Still, a growing unease with the Dallas meeting can be felt among U.S. Catholics and priests.

Hearing the allegations

Some bishops, according to the media, had never heard directly from victims until they sat in silence listening to the moving stories of the four survivors who addressed them. What was it that kept bishops from meeting with their own people who reported abuse by clergy?

Likely it was advice from diocesan lawyers. Whatever the reason, it is sad that a number of bishops had never sat down with young people and their families to hear personally the allegations brought against one of their priests. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have a right to meet with their bishops. The potential for healing when such meetings occur is considerable; and the pain of the victims is intensified when such meetings do not occur.

Article 8 of the charter calls for the establishment of an Office for Child and Youth Protection at the bishops’ headquarters in Washington. The purpose of the office, according to the charter, is to assist dioceses in the implementation of “safe environment programs,” to audit adherence to policies set by the bishops, and to make an annual public report “on the progress made in implementing the standards of this charter.” It is a sad and telling day when a national office is deemed necessary to protect children and youth from the negligence and behaviors of bishops, priests and other church personnel.

The bishops gathered in Dallas, it can be argued, made the same mistake they made almost 20 years ago when they put the reputation of the institutional church and its centuries-old structures ahead of the welfare of children and youth. Now they were putting the reputation of the institutional church -- and their efforts to regain the credibility and trust of Catholics -- ahead of the welfare of their priests. Zero tolerance and “one strike and you’re out” seems only reasonable to victims and their families and to the overwhelming number of angry faithful who are fed up with the sexual exploitation of young people by clergy, but especially with the reassignment by bishops of priest abusers to other parishes or to other dioceses -- sometimes with letters of commendation.

Making no distinctions

Priests know full well that even criminal law recognizes gradations of sexual misconduct. The sodomizing of a 14-year-old boy, for example is treated differently than an obscene phone call to a young man. Yet the zero tolerance stance adopted by the bishops allows for no such distinctions. Certainly all abuse of minors is capable of inflicting severe harm, yet the real differences in sexual abuse, their treatment protocols and the possibility of restricted and limited forms of ministry remain outside the focus of the present policy adopted by the bishops. This is a hard pill to swallow for priests. Some very good men, capable of some ministry that would not bring them into contact with minors, are now put into the same category of offenders that includes serial pederasts like John Geoghan and James Porter.

Apparently, just such a generic policy is deemed necessary by the bishops to regain the lost trust of the faithful. Many priests, I believe, feel betrayed, suspecting that, as usual, institutional considerations come first.

They suspect a double standard is at play here. Priests who admit to abusing minors or even faced with allegations of sexual abuse may not wear clerical garb, according to Norm 9,c. (norms dealing with accusations of sexual abuse of minors). Yet Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, who resigned in 1995 as archbishop of Vienna following allegations -- acknowledged to be true by his successor, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn -- that he sexually abused novice monks when he was a Benedictine abbot, has recently been making public appearances dressed in his cardinal’s robes.

Good leaders, it is said, never ask their subordinates to do anything they themselves have not done or are not ready to do. Nevertheless, the bishops who had assigned abuser priests to unsuspecting parishes or recommended them to other dioceses with positive summaries of their “good work” were able to return to their dioceses armed with a policy directed at priests and deacons -- not clergy, because the term clergy includes bishops. The focus was now back on the priest abusers and off their bishop leaders. No bishop dared to recommend that a brother bishop should offer his resignation to the pope for the good of the church. Zero tolerance for priests and deacons but not for bishops responsible for child endangerment through negligent supervision and incomprehensible administrative decisions.

A symptom of the feudal system

Finally, the bishops were reluctant to acknowledge that the present scandal, as tragic as it is, is a symptom of a feudal system that has long outlived its usefulness. The present clerical system -- or culture -- is now seen to foster secrecy, privilege, arrogance and emotional immaturity in its ordained ministers and ecclesial authorities. To acknowledge this, of course, would be to invite a review of the role of the laity in the leadership of our dioceses and parishes, the wisdom of mandated celibacy for diocesan priests, and the place of women in ministry. Such reviews do not play well at the Vatican and are strongly resisted by many if not most of the U.S. bishops.

“It’s not often,” said Daniel Maguire, writing in U.S. News & World Report, “that we witness the death of a mystique.” The mystique the priesthood and episcopacy have enjoyed for generations in the United States is indeed gone -- and it cannot be retrieved. What we have in its place, however, is a maturing laity who is coming into its own. Laypeople love their church but they will no longer tolerate anything less than full disclosure about the scale of the abuse scandal and what it has cost them.

Laypeople know that, had they been involved in the scandal from the beginning, their clergy would never have succeeded in scarring so many young lives. They know that this is their hour, their moment; and they are ready and willing. The laity, I am convinced, inspired by the Spirit, will shepherd us through the present crisis into the renewed church promised by the Second Vatican Council.

Fr. Donald Cozzens teaches religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He is the author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002