Bishop William Murphy of Long Island’s Diocese of Rockville Centre will meet January 19 with four hundred of his priests. It’s about time. Murphy is responding to a request made in a letter signed by fifty priests calling for a conversation with the bishop. The letter noted a “sadness and sense of desperation” among Rockville Centre clergy in the aftermath of the sexual-abuse crisis, and asserted that “life goes on under a dark cloud.” The bishop has a responsibility to deal more directly with his flock, the letter writers said. So do all bishops. Murphy was a prominent adviser to Cardinal Bernard Law, and questions about his handling of allegations of sexual abuse against Boston priests have never been answered satisfactorily. Some Catholics, including the local branch of Voice of the Faithful, have called for his resignation. It is hoped that the January meeting will at the very least begin to grapple with the paralysis felt by many Catholics on Long Island. These frustrations are shared by Catholics across the country, clergy and laity alike. Dioceses and bishops differ, of course, but few observers dispute the fact that the church suffers from a morale crisis of daunting proportions. The laity is wary and disengaged. Many priests feel they have been betrayed by their bishops-even made scapegoats for the sexual-abuse crisis. Nor is it a secret that bishops, having been subjected to a firestorm of media opprobrium over the last two years, are resentful and suspicious of the press, the laity, and sometimes even their own priests. Some bishops argue that sexual abuse is a pervasive societal problem and that the church’s failings have been unfairly singled out because of its unpopular stands on other issues. Many bishops also suspect that the abuse crisis is being used to advance longstanding and unrelated agendas for church reform. Communication between the hierarchy and the laity remains poor. There are institutional, historical, and eccelesiological reasons for that. The urban church, the ethnic parish, and the parochial school no longer figure in the experience of the vast majority of Catholics. Catholics get most of their news about the church from the secular media, and little of what they hear is encouraging. Instead of reaching out to lay Catholics in innovative ways, bishops seem determined to keep as low a profile as possible. Meanwhile, disturbing stories about the handling of allegations of sexual abuse continue to appear in the local and national press. It is difficult to assess the accuracy or significance of any story in particular. Last month, for example, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, former president of what is now called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, pleaded “no contest” to charges that the diocese had failed to report sexual-abuse crimes. The diocese was fined $10,000. Pilarczyk is widely respected, and the charges against the diocese stemmed from incidents that occurred before he became archbishop in 1982 (although he was an auxiliary in Cincinnati at the time). Is the plea of “no contest” just another attempt by the bishops to evade responsibility, or is it a belated but necessary step in moving toward an open and responsible way of dealing with abuse allegations? Is it possible to respond magnanimously to victims while being fair to bishops who have made honest mistakes? Seemingly more disturbing was a front-page story in the New York Times (November 25) about Robert P. Scamardo, formerly general counsel for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. Scamardo had represented the diocese in sexual-abuse cases for five years. As it turns out, Scamardo has now revealed that he himself was abused as a teenager by a priest and a church lay worker. He subsequently agreed to a settlement with the Diocese of Austin, where the abuse allegedly took place. Scamardo’s dual identity as victim and church lawyer is an unusual situation, to say the least, and hard to judge. His recent accusations about the church’s current attitude toward victims are very troubling, if true. He claims that church lawyers are still playing “hardball” with victims, that the church is still trying to minimize payments as well as coverage for victims’ therapy, and that the bishops, not the victims, are the ones who are intent on confidentiality agreements. The number of victims and abusive priests is much greater than the church acknowledges, Scamardo says. Of course, it is a lawyer’s duty to represent his client-even the church-aggressively. How true Scamardo’s accusations are about the Galveston-Houston Diocese, and how accurately might they reflect what is still going on in dioceses across the country? We will know more in February, when investigators hired by the Office of Child and Youth Protection, the independent board appointed by the bishops, make their report on the number of sexual-abuse victims and perpetrators in all the nation’s dioceses. We hope that the report will spell out the extent and the history of sexual abuse within the American church. It should also give us a better idea of whether Catholic priests are more likely than those in other, similar professions to abuse adolescents or children. The report should make very clear which bishops refused to cooperate with its work. The press will no doubt strictly scrutinize the board’s methods, and flaws in the report will presumably be exposed. It’s been a difficult two years for American Catholics. Horror over the extent of sexual abuse by priests and the suffering of victims was quickly followed by justified outrage at bishops for covering up such crimes. Confidence in the church, especially the hierarchy, has been shaken, despite some polls to the contrary that seem to exonerate local ordinaries. Not surprisingly, other preliminary studies show that lay participation in and identification with the church have weakened. In a time of terrorism, war, AIDS, vast discrepancies of wealth, religious conflict, brutal civil strife, and genocide, the church’s eloquent defense of human dignity is needed more than ever. Yet, largely because of the failings of their leaders, Catholics find their spirits depressed and their voices muted, even scoffed at in many quarters. Advent is a time of penance and anticipation, a time of waiting. This Advent, American Catholics wait with hope for a new sense of confidence to return to a church that has its firm foundation not in men, or bishops, but in the promise of the gospel.

Published in the 2003-12-19 issue: 
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