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Church in Crisis

Time for bishops to listen, take ordinary Catholics seriously


They just don’t get it.” These were the words of a 68-year-old grandmother, as she pulled her sweater around her shoulders and leaned forward into the truth of her convictions. In the last few months, her statement became a recurring antiphon, a mantra of lament about Catholic leadership, as we went from parish to parish, facilitating listening sessions on the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. At these gatherings we heard moms and dads, grandparents and youth, single parents and engaged couples -- faithful, hardworking, committed Catholics -- give voice to their disbelief, grief, and outrage at this crisis.

A couple of weeks ago in Dallas, we saw the first hopeful signs that the bishops are beginning to “get it.” It was a somber, chastened group of men that prayed, deliberated and finally issued the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

This unprecedented document represents a significant step forward in what promises to be a long journey toward restoring trust. The document and the debate that surrounded it revealed a quiet but significant shift in attitude and commitment. As a body, the bishops appear to be telling us that they want to move from denial, stonewalling and blaming to apology, compassion and action.

Several bishops and groups of conservative Catholics have excoriated the secular media for singling out the church and its clergy. Ironically, it was the intense pressure of the public media, together with the outcry of the victims and the angry groundswell of ordinary Catholics that finally got the bishops’ attention. The bishops’ conference has been confronting the crisis surrounding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy for almost 20 years. What the bishops as a body could not come to from ethical conviction or gospel values during all these years, they finally arrived at with a “collective gun” to their heads.

It remains to be seen where this first step will lead. Is the charter only a reaction to outside pressure, or is it the beginning of a long-term response? Is this damage control or a genuine call to institutional conversion? Will the bishops return to business as usual, or recognize the sea change that has taken place in the Catholic community?

“In this charter,” the bishops state in their concluding remarks, “we focus specifically on the painful issue at hand. However, in this matter we do wish to affirm our concern especially with regard to issues related to effective consultation of the laity and the participation of God’s people in decision-making that affects their well-being.” This is, in our estimation, the most significant sentence in the entire document. It recognizes that sexual abuse -- with its need for an immediate and urgent response -- is a painful symptom of an even deeper crisis: how (and, perhaps more basically, if) we will choose to become the people of God.

The Second Vatican Council called for ongoing structures of collaboration and shared responsibility at all levels of church life. In the 40 years that have intervened since its opening, we have seen little actual implementation of this vision. If anything, during the papacy of John Paul II, the Vatican has successfully engineered a re-centralization of power. Despite the promise of Lumen Gentium (“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”), the bishops have not become the collegial body of spiritual leaders that it calls for; on the contrary, they have, for the most part, been reduced to passive functionaries, branch-managers for a multi-national religious corporation.

The practical guidelines of the charter call for a policy of “zero tolerance” for clergy sexual abuse. It also outlines the need for a compassionate and pastoral response for victim/survivors, and the role of independent lay groups to monitor and enforce the guidelines. But zero tolerance for abusing clergy is not enough. Nor is a panel of lay experts to oversee the process. We need more than zero tolerance; we need a spirit of “abundant listening.” If the bishops are serious, they will begin developing structured, ongoing ways to listen more effectively to all of God’s people. It is time for the “teachers of the faith” to learn from the people about those dimensions of their lives that, in the words of the bishops, “affect their well being.”

In 1974 and 1975, as part of a preparation for the United States’ bicentennial celebration, the American bishops initiated a nationwide series of listening sessions that culminated in the Call to Action Conference in October 1976. This conference, reflecting the grassroots convictions of American Catholics, proposed several sweeping changes, including a clearer commitment to justice and peace, a more inclusive role for women in the church, and a renewed theology of human sexuality. But instead of dialoguing with the conference and its proposals, the bishops rejected the entire process and circled their ecclesiastical wagons.

It is time again for the bishops to initiate a national commitment to listen. Ideally this might even be a first step toward Vatican III. But this time, they must take the people and the process seriously.

Time is running out for the Catholic church in this country. There is a great deal at stake. The credibility of the church and its mission to protect the innocent and vulnerable hang in the balance. If we do not act now, this opportunity for conversion and grace may well pass us by.

Franciscan Sr. Fran Ferder, and Fr. John Heagle are codirectors of Therapy and Renewal Associates, a counseling and consultation center in Seattle. They also serve as adjunct faulty for the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. Their forthcoming book, Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality, is scheduled for release this summer by Crossroad Publications.

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002