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Dallas is only a modest beginning

By any measure, the opening session of the recent meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Dallas was the most unusual they have ever conducted. During the two days that followed they managed to pass a national policy that had eluded them for some 15 years. But much more remains to be done.

The first day of the meeting opened, under the gaze of hundreds of media representatives, with the kind of apology -- uncluttered and unqualified -- that the victims of clergy sex abusers, ordinary Catholics and the general public had awaited for years. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, repeatedly said “We are the ones,” referring to the bishops, who reassigned priest abusers; who did not report crimes to the authorities; who worried more about scandal “than the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse”; and treated victims and their families “as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church.”

The apology was followed by two stinging critiques delivered by lay people -- Scott Appleby, a historian from the University of Notre Dame, and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine.

The critiques were followed by wrenching stories from four victims of clergy sex abusers, and the morning ended with the detailed account by Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea of what happens to a young victim of sex abuse, of the “long, complicated, sometimes treacherous process” involved in recovering from abuse.

Indeed, the bishops had subjected themselves to a grinding confrontation with the enormity of the sin of sexual abuse by clergy. They were unmistakably moved, one might even say, chastened. The stage had been set for some grand gesture. Expectations ran high.

Why, then, hasn’t that morning been followed by a sense of catharsis? Why are so many still so frustrated and discontented?

Perhaps because the expectations ran too high for a two-day meeting. Perhaps because the purge of emotions and grief, the attendance to forgiveness and reconciliation were, in the final analysis, incomplete.

The meeting in Dallas will undoubtedly be seen as a marker of sorts in Catholic church history in the United States, if only for the fact that the bishops were forced to deal publicly with a deeply embarrassing and humiliating subject.

Whether that meeting marks the beginning of the kind of significant change that must precede any rehabilitation of the bishops as moral leaders remains to be seen. The initial indications are discouraging.

The bishops’ moral authority has all but vanished in the wider culture. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, viewed by some as a kind of super Catholic at war with the heathen culture, within days of the Dallas meeting would include in a dissenting opinion on a death penalty case a short but disdainful reference to the bishops’ lack of credibility on crime issues.

The implication of such comment by a high-profile Catholic is clear: The bishops will be easy to ignore in the public sphere for some time. No matter how tough they get on priests who have been accused or convicted of sexually abusing children, the bishops continue to hold themselves beyond accountability, to the astonishment of everyone outside their exclusive club.

It was galling to see Cardinals Bernard Law of Boston and Edward Egan of New York joining the debate over details of what essentially became a zero-tolerance policy for priests when so many questions remain about their own contributions to the scandal. In Law’s case, it is clear from the evidence unearthed in previously sealed documents that he not only abandoned his pastoral instincts in ignoring the pleas of victims, in too many cases he also abandoned common sense and turned his back on the abundantly available wisdom that told him what he was doing was imprudent, dangerous and quite possibly illegal. His loyalty at the time was to the clerical club and his own career. The victims, to whom he has so profusely apologized in recent weeks, were not part of his consideration then.

In the documents that have been unsealed so far in Connecticut and in the demeanor Egan has displayed and the statements he has made since the scandal broke anew in January, it is clear that he is contemptuous of any process that might hold him accountable for his actions. Deep questions remain about Egan’s handling of the situation in Bridgeport, Conn.

Egan, Law and others personify the “arrogance that comes with unchecked power” of which Appleby spoke. They would have done far better to have asked forgiveness of their brother bishops and to have sought the advice of those among them who had handled the sex abuse scandal with honesty and consideration for the victims -- and otherwise kept quiet. But such men apparently suffer from the delusion that they, alone, are still in charge, that somehow they still command respect and exercise authority.

The bishops may yet, in some circumstances and among certain constituencies, elicit adulation or be able to apply force. However, relatively little respect remains except for those few who honestly honor the idea that the church is the people of God, not just the hierarchy and priests.

The bishops, in the final analysis, were able to please almost no one -- not the victims, who think they have not gone far enough because some priests will be allowed to remain priests in the most isolated circumstances; not the priests, who feel they have been thrown to the dogs, especially those who have offended once, often years, if not decades ago, and since have been model priests and pastors; not ordinary Catholics, who feel multiple betrayals, first in the news of abuse, second in the cover-up and lying, and now in being told they are not permitted to forgive priests they’ve come to know, love and respect, even in the priests’ brokenness.

The bishops fell short because they speak from a floating platform, one anchored nowhere, not in the civil law, which they will increasingly be dodging as more documents become unsealed and more cases come to light. And certainly not in the Catholic community, which they essentially turned their backs on years ago when they decided the community could not be trusted with the bitter news that some of its leaders had committed awful acts with children.

When the bishops made the fundamental decision nearly two decades ago to turn their backs on victims and to seek a purely legal solution in hopes of keeping the problem a secret, thus sparing the institution embarrassment, a corresponding breach began to open between the bishops and the people they are supposed to serve.

The breach widened over the years, and not just because of the way the bishops handled the sex abuse crisis. The “reservoir of trust” has run low, in Steinfels’ words, for many reasons. “Secrecy is one. Careerism another. Silent and passive acquiescence in Vatican edicts and understandings that you know to be contrary to your own pastoral experience. Another is a widespread sense of double standards. One standard for what is said publicly and officially, another standard for what is held and said privately. One standard for the baptized, another for the ordained. One standard for priests, another for bishops. One standard for men, another standard for women. One standard for the ordination of heterosexuals and what now threatens to become another standard for homosexuals. One standard for justice and dialogue outside the church, another for justice and dialogue within.”

The sex abuse crisis has shown how far some bishops were willing to move from the community to retain status and privilege.

As the days recede from Dallas, the dimensions of what was accomplished become clearer. The accomplishments are modest. At a time when the bishops most needed the healing of the community, they have remained distant from it. They have become, in many ways, a community unto themselves. What has occurred, in Gregory’s words, is “a rupture in our relationship as bishops with the faithful.”

The rupture makes for awkward circumstances. It is a bizarre ecclesiology, indeed, that would allow Law to follow an acknowledgement that he had become a pariah in his own archdiocese with a defiant assertion that he is still bishop.

What issued, finally, from Dallas was a policy squeezed from the bishops, who acted only as the result of public pressure. Many of them are clearly uncomfortable with it. The policy of zero tolerance has no foundation in the Christian community or the Christian scriptures. It was a policy, granted, that had become necessary. But it is a policy, nonetheless, devised primarily to satisfy public pressure.

It is a policy that deals severely with priests, but does nothing to hold bishops accountable for overseeing and advancing the scandal.

It establishes a yet ill-defined national board of lay people, led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who has displayed a fervent prosecutorial spirit, but is still rather vague on what exactly his committee will do, what power it ultimately will have.

Inside the community, the final irony is that the bishops are left to look to laypeople for legitimacy and credibility. Laypeople are the only ones remaining who can rehabilitate the hierarchy and begin to rebuild damaged trust.

The sex abuse scandal has shown that authority does not automatically come with an office. It is the result of a human agreement based on maturity, trust, respect and transparency. In many dioceses, Catholics and their bishops are far from that kind of understanding.

Dallas, as speaker after speaker -- critics and victims and bishops themselves -- said, is only a beginning.

“The principles underlying the policies you will implement on sexual abuse -- a return to strict discipline and moral oversight within the priesthood, a new regime of collaboration with laity marked by transparency and accountability, a firm resolve to pray together as a body of bishops and as individuals to root out clericalism in the priesthood and in the seminary -- these principles must be extended to all aspects of the life and service of the Catholic church in the United States,” said Appleby. “Otherwise, the next scandal will come quickly on the heels of this one.”

That June morning in Dallas showed the world that the bishops could be forced to confront some awful truths about the clerical ranks of the church. What long-term effect that morning will have, what ultimately will come of the heartfelt apologies, will depend on the self-awareness, work and reforms the bishops are willing to undertake in their own dioceses, among their people, away from the media’s glare.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002