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Bishops forcefully deliver ambiguous message


By most accounts, the U.S. bishops succeeded in delivering two clear messages during their fall meeting in Washington Nov. 11-14. The jury is still out, however, as to whether they can ultimately make either message stick.

At one level, the bishops affirmed in the strongest possible terms that their policy of zero tolerance for sex abuse is still in place, despite recent revisions to satisfy Vatican concerns about due process.

On a second front, more at the level of tone than content, the bishops delivered a subtle, but unmistakable, message to the Catholic world. In the simplest terms, it was: “We’re back in business.”

The dramatic arc of the Washington meeting was set after the Vatican declined on Oct. 14 to approve the Dallas sex abuse norms as adopted in June. Instead, a special mixed commission, composed of four American bishops and four Vatican prelates, met in Rome Oct. 28 and 29, producing a revised document.

Victims’ advocates and some lay groups immediately complained that the bishops were backing away from their crackdown on priests who sexually abuse children and young people. The bishops, however, stressed in Washington that their “one strike and you’re out” stance has not been altered one whit.

“A priest or a deacon, for even a single act of sexual abuse, will be permanently removed from ministry,” said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., a member of both the mixed commission and the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

Lori said Nov. 11 that the results of the mixed commission’s work “give the bishop a full range of measures to fulfill that commitment.”

How that pledge works out in practice, however, remains to be seen.

For one thing, it’s still not entirely clear exactly what the offense is for which the bishops have vowed to show zero tolerance. The definition of sexual abuse adopted by the mixed commission, which comes out of canon law, refers to an “external, objectively grave violation of the sixth commandment.” What exactly that means is in the eye of the beholder.

“You can’t be hung for what you think, but for what you do,” said Dalllas Bishop Joseph Galante, by way of explaining the standard. “It covers a multitude of areas, basically anything that you do that puts a minor in a position of being used for sexual gratification.”

How the standard will be interpreted in practice remains to be seen. Chicago Cardinal Francis George, in a briefing session for the bishops, said it will ultimately be up to church courts to apply the definition. Depending on whether the bishops decide to create several regional tribunals, or one national court, this could mean that priests will be held to different standards.

“It happens that way in civil law, too,” George said, in response to a question from NCR. He said the bishops will hold training sessions for judges in order to promote a “uniform standard of justice.”

An even bigger question is how these cases will be handled in Rome, since ultimate decisions on clerical discipline are made by the Vatican if a priest launches an appeal.

The new norms, for example, call on bishops to appeal on a case-by-case basis to Rome for a waiver when an act of sexual abuse falls outside the statute of limitations in canon law (10 years after the victim’s 18th birthday). How many waivers Rome is prepared to grant, and what criteria they will use to make the decision, remains unclear.

George told the bishops that the Vatican will likely grant most of the waivers requested. A Vatican source contacted by NCR Nov. 11 confirmed George’s statement, saying that Vatican officials are prepared to take a “liberal” position on such requests out of a desire to express solidarity with the American bishops.

Still, the Vatican source said, there will probably be some cases in which a waiver is not granted, either because the proof is not convincing or the offense does not seem sufficiently grave.

Lori told reporters that even in such a case, under Section 9 of the revised norms, bishops can take administrative action to permanently remove a priest from ministry even if the Vatican does not permit a canonical trial. Yet a priest can also appeal a bishop’s administrative action, in a process called “recourse,” and it’s not clear how the Vatican might respond. Traditionally the Vatican has taken a dim view of disciplinary measures imposed on priests outside the process established in canon law.

Hence it’s not yet clear if the Vatican is prepared to back up the absolute zero tolerance stance proclaimed by the American bishops.

Finally, the bishops broke little new ground on the question of episcopal accountability that many analysts believe is a critically important element of the crisis. To date, no bishop has resigned or been publicly disciplined for a failure to prevent sexual abuse by priests. Dallas did not address the question on the grounds that discipline of bishops under canon law pertains to the pope.

Several bishops pointed out that both the National Review Board and the new Office for Protection of Child and Youth Protection will, as part of their mandate, monitor the compliance of bishops with the norms, and publicize cases in which bishops do not honor their commitments.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul, Minn., told NCR that the body was looking at ways that existing oversight measures that hold bishops accountable for church finances might be extended to the sex abuse issue.

In Washington, the bishops adopted a statement of commitment, in which they explicitly owned up to their failures in the sex abuse crisis.

“We acknowledge our mistakes in the past where some bishops have transferred priests who had abused minors from one assignment to another,” it reads. “We recognize our role in the suffering this has caused, and we apologize for it.”

Whether all this will be sufficient to restore public trust is not yet clear. Asked by NCR if the bishops could regain confidence short of some high-profile resignations, Lori said: “I can’t make that kind of prediction.”

In terms of their second message, the bishops clearly wanted to use the Washington meeting to return to some kind of normalcy, to project an air of a church no longer paralyzed by crisis. In part, this meant warning various activist groups inside and outside the church not to expect a radical overhaul in teachings and practices.

“As bishops, we should have no illusions about the intent of some people who have shown more than a casual interest in the discord we have experienced within the church this year,” said Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the conference, in an opening address Nov. 11.

“There are those outside the church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the church espouses, and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the church cannot and will never condone.”

When he spoke that line, the bishops greeted Gregory with rousing applause.

Throughout the four-day meeting, bishops seemed to take up Gregory’s invitation to assertiveness.

Lori, for example, robustly defended his decision to ban the new reform organization Voice of the Faithful from his diocese.

“Their very slogan, ‘Keep the faith, change the church,’ is a problem,” Lori said. “Also, they say they don’t take positions on issues like women’s ordination or celibacy. But the church does have positions on those issues, and one obligation for any group is to think with the church.”

Personnel of the bishops’ conference also took a hard line with Soulforce, a group that promotes inclusion of homosexuals in all faith traditions. When 11 members group showed up at the Hyatt Regency, where the bishops were meeting, to protest the denial of the Eucharist to three Soulforce members the night before, they were chased out by police, and three were arrested and spent the night in jail (see story on Page 6).

Even the presence of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law on the dias during the meeting, talking about Iraq, and then at a press briefing taking questions about the kidnapping of a Colombian bishop, seemed to project a less cowed, timorous spirit. It was the first time Law has made himself available to the press at a major church gathering since the current round of sex scandals broke in January.

All of these gestures projected an image of a church, and especially its leadership class, emerging from some very long shadows. How much reality lies behind that image will depend on the experience of the next two years, as the sex abuse norms take effect, and as Catholics find out if bishops mean what they have said about lay empowerment and a new way of doing business.

The bishops desired, over these four days in the nation’s capital, to appear back in the saddle, and for a few fleeting moments they seemed to pull it off. Whether they manage to stay there is anyone’s guess.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002