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Bishops themselves inspired dreaded ‘agenda’

In his presidential speech, Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned his fellow bishops that they needed to protect themselves against unspecified attackers “even among the baptized … who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas.”

We have a new dirty word in the ecclesiastical lexicon: agenda. One can only infer that no one but the bishops, of course, should have one, and their agenda is maintenance of the status quo no matter how battered their credibility, no matter how severely they have betrayed the trust once placed in them.

The problem with bishops’ meetings is that regardless of how tightly scripted they might be, the bishops can never fully disguise that they are, as a group, fundamentally in denial of certain realities. And the most pressing reality that seems never to make it onto the hierarchical agenda is the dire need for reform of a closed structure that remains entirely unaccountable to the community it serves and largely out of range of criticism.

Gregory has served this conference well. In 1994, he took over a diocese, Belleville in Illinois, that was awash at the time in sexual abuse problems. He has received high marks for cleaning up the mess left by then Bishop James Kelleher, who was promoted to archbishop of Kansas City, Kan.

That wasn’t enough. It wasn’t long after Gregory became the first black to head the conference that the scandal blew up again in Boston. He deserves a better shot than spending most of his term stage-managing the bishops’ response to the sex abuse crisis.

Why does he feel compelled now to suggest that those seeking reform of a structure that has performed so miserably are somehow out to “strike the shepherd and scatter the flock”? That may set a tone of high drama and give the bishops justification for drawing the wagons into an even tighter circle. But it is overblown and an insult to serious Catholics, most of them in the broad middle of the conservative-to-liberal spectrum, who are convinced of the need for reform.

Agenda? Yes, those whose trust has been betrayed have an agenda. Jesus certainly had an agenda, spelled out in the gospels. The response to the call for justice is an agenda. The call to mutual accountability is an agenda.

The bishops, speaking as latecomers to victims’ concerns, certainly have an agenda -- unfortunately that agenda still is aimed at deflecting criticism from themselves while maintaining decision making entirely to the themselves.

Some among the hierarchy may take comfort from a few voices who strain to argue that the sex abuse crisis is made up by media out to get the church or that the crisis, which was limited to a certain time period and involved just a few priests, is over. Some contend, too, that the bishops really didn’t know anything about the dimensions or implications of the crisis until recently.

All are simply incorrect assertions.

We don’t know the numbers of priests involved or the amount of treasury that was used to buy silence because the dioceses won’t divulge those figures; while it seems the major portion of the scandal has surfaced, we don’t know for certain because new cases keep arising and prosecutors keep pressing for disclosure of documents that remain under seal throughout the country. Finally, as we have reported at length, the bishops in 1985 had a lengthy rundown by three experts on the dimensions and possible implications of the crisis. They knew. They chose after that to shuffle abusers from one place to another, concerned primarily about the reputation of the institution and the priests involved.

Catholics concerned about the abuse of power and a system that remains unaccountable do have an agenda: significant, meaningful lay participation in decision making, the end to secret proceedings and undue clerical privilege, and full and open accounting for the use of the church’s treasury.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002