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Vatican response to norms raises more questions

Skepticism from victims and lay activist groups about the Vatican response to the Dallas norms on sexual abuse is both predictable and understandable. Rome has stepped in repeatedly over the years where it would have done better to leave well enough alone, so one can sympathize with the hostility to Vatican intervention that has circulated in some quarters.

In this case, however, a degree of cautious optimism may be in order.

First, a clarification. The Oct. 14 letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, does not immediately amount to a rejection of zero tolerance for priests who do sexual violence to children. Instead, it raised some sensible zero-tolerance related issues, including for what offense and imposed by what process.

As NCR has noted in previous editorials, the Dallas norms were flawed in certain important respects. These include the definition of the offense of sexual abuse, so broadly construed that, conceivably, even off-color jokes could be swept under its standard, and the lack of due process for the accused.

It should be noted, however, that these flaws were the inevitable results of the stunning failures of the overwhelming majority of U.S. bishops who for years disregarded the serious complaints of abused victims. Only, in the face an outraged laity, did they feel compelled to act emphatically and without exception.

Still, the clear and outrageous injustices of sexual abuse should not be remedied with further injustices. Railroading accused priests -- either by compromising their right to defense, or by imposing draconian penalties that bear no rational relationship to their crime -- is simply the wrong way to go.

It cannot be repeated enough that the bishops in Dallas dealt with only part of the sexual abuse issue, and in the eyes of many, the lesser part: the offending priests. The issue they never raised, and the issue that has always been the most painful part of this endless nightmare to victims, their families and the wider church, has been the bishops’ own culpability. With the U.S. bishops now in a tug of war with the Vatican and their own priests, the pressing issue of episcopal cover-up and betrayal is getting buried deeper and deeper with each passing day.

The Vatican has announced the formation of a mixed episcopal commission to work out differences between the U.S. bishops’ Dallas sex abuse norms and the Vatican’s wishes on the subject. The commission is to be composed of four Vatican representatives and four U.S. bishops. Dare one ask: Where is the laity? Once again, it appears lay voices, which surfaced briefly in Dallas, have been silenced. Granted that resolving the problems with the norms requires certain canonical expertise, so, too, does it require the expertise of mothers and fathers and victims. The symbolism of eight men in Roman collars closing a door and making a deal does little to persuade Catholics that a corner has been turned. Does Rome, as they say, simply not “get it”?

As we look down the road, we get the sinking feeling that our church has made little if any progress since last April when the U.S. cardinals were called to Rome to meet with Vatican officials.

The Vatican has also raised the issue of the role and power of lay review boards. These diocesan boards and their national lay board overseer were formed to assure the laity that their bishops were taking the Dallas charter seriously, and implementing it. Independent outsiders were to assure that this happened. It’s simply the way responsible institutions operate. The truth is that the bishops need the laity to restore their credibility. Sinking in the quicksand of lost trust, they cannot pull themselves out without the help of outsiders. Like it or not, they need outside help. They need the laity. The wiser bishops understand this and have not chased out newly formed lay organizations, such as Voice of the Faithful. The foolish bishops have viewed caring and involved laity as a threat.

A wide swath of the ecclesial spectrum of U.S. Catholics has seen the formation of diocesan lay boards as an important step forward. These oversight boards are needed and they need to be more than symbolic concessions to a distraught laity. The laity, after all, are the church. We might all recall, there was a time in church history when the laity elected their bishops and priests! Nothing in church dogma says it must be governed as an absolute monarchy. Indeed, there are compelling reasons, including a recently educated laity and the taking hold of democratic ideals throughout much of the world, for the bishops to accommodate to the modern world and find ways to bring the laity into church decision-making. By contrast, it is precisely the notion that bishops can be viewed as accountable to the lay boards that frightens Vatican hardliners.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had it just right during the summit between the American cardinals and the Vatican last April when he said, “Part of the problem is that we bishops have made too many of these decisions by ourselves.”

Finally, on April 30, 2001, the Vatican issued Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, “Defense of the Most Holy Sacraments.” It stipulated that sex abuse cases must be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can decide to take the case or remand it to the local level. The Vatican has refused to publish the Sacramentorum norms, and hence we have no idea how they may affect the work of the mixed commission. It is high time the Holy See released these secret norms.

It does not appear the now two-decade-long sex abuse crisis will disappear any time soon. In the short term, we can hope that reason prevails and that gospel values carry the day. Meanwhile, the sex abuse issues increasingly draw attention to large structural challenges that face the church, if it is to be a credible witness to the faith. We can also hope that these challenges will not be ignored for another 20 years.

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002