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Church in Crisis -- Commentary

Bishops’ haste produces un-Catholic policy


The American Catholic bishops were under enormous pressure in Dallas to show that they heard the victims of sexual abuse. They are to be applauded for their openness to learning from victims, from Catholic thinkers, and from the deep disappointment of Catholics who are enraged about this Catholic Watergate.

Unfortunately, the bishops settled on a terribly regrettable policy. Zero tolerance was born of a need for image recuperation and from an authentic attempt to reply to popular outrage. But it is a deeply flawed and even un-Catholic policy.

Zero tolerance is a weasel phrase. What does it really mean? What person of good will, after all, knowingly tolerates child abuse or pedophilia? Though it has the ring of absolute finality, the phrase is not ultimately meant to signal anything coherent. Instead, it is designed for public consumption, to portray bishops as tough on abusers. “Zero tolerance” is now the brand du jour for institutions caught in scandal, from corporations to sports teams to churches. The unreflective zeal with which the phrase is used is the clearest clue to its slippery denotation.

Zero tolerance is not “zero” after all. If by zero tolerance is meant no abusers in the priesthood, then those found guilty should be defrocked. But the bishops’ policy allows convicted abusers to remain priests, though removed from active ministry. Everyday lay Catholics will still have to support these priests directly or indirectly for the remainder of their lives -- which in some cases will be many decades -- unless the bishops have a plan to establish a separate fund to support the livelihood of these priests. If a priest is still authentically a priest, he should be allowed to work toward returning to ministry. If he is not authentically a priest, he should be defrocked.

Zero tolerance contradicts the countercultural tradition of the U.S. bishops’ social teachings. In their stands for peace and economic justice, the bishops have been willing to offend mainstream Americans, including Catholics, in the name of a calm, rational fidelity to human dignity. But the zero-tolerance policy is at least in part based on an attitude of revenge toward offenders, a furious desire on the part of many Catholics to see guilty priests humiliated. Revenge, though, is never a morally suitable motivation -- as official Catholic teaching on the death penalty holds.

Zero tolerance is a blunt object of punishment. All abuse is an offense against human dignity, but just as the severity of sins differs in traditional Catholic teaching, and the severity of punishment in civil law varies according to many factors, not all abuses are the same. In our overheated atmosphere, this is difficult for many to admit. A priest who briefly exposed himself to a teenager has not committed the same act as a priest who raped a minor. The bishops’ policy does not take sufficiently into account the specific circumstances of each case: the suffering of the victim(s), the rehabilitation of the priest, the context and nature of the offending or abusive actions.

Zero tolerance creates a class of priests who must live the rest of their lives in limbo. These priests, if they retire to monasteries, will then have to be supported by religious orders, whose quarters will now become permanent guesthouses for this new class of priests. What will be the psychological cost to priests, and the economic cost to the church, of this official banishment and ostracism?

With more time for deliberation, the bishops would likely have taken seriously these flaws in their policy. But they acted in haste.

Like Enron and Worldcom, my church’s leaders hid their deficits for years, betraying the everyday faithful. In their rush to burnish their image in Dallas, the bishops chose not justice, but a slogan, with all the precision of a billy club.

With their policy, the bishops have presented abusers as a sacrificial lamb to angry Catholics. In so doing, the bishops perhaps hope to escape through a side door as American Catholics and the media revel fix our eyes on the glossy logo of zero tolerance. With this policy, the hard work of real accountability in the church has been traded for a bag of silver media reviews.

Tom Beaudoin is visiting assistant professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002