When in Dallas


When the Catholic bishops meet in Dallas, June 13-15, they face a daunting task. They have three days to respond convincingly to a scandal that has escalated out of control and done great damage to the people of God. What the bishops do is of critical importance for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States. How they do it is equally important. Rote apologies and evasive churchspeak will not do. Openness, honesty, and decisiveness are needed. Though individual bishops exhibit these qualities, this is not the normal style of the hierarchy collectively. Even at its best, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops conducts business slowly, methodically, with diligent committee meetings behind closed doors and key matters shaded by compromise or ambiguity. Sorry, not this time. In Dallas, the bishops must distinguish two tasks, the first to be done immediately, and a second that, realistically, will have to wait. Unless they are bold and decisive enough about the first, no one will be satisfied with promises about the second. Now is the time to approve a binding national policy on handling cases of sexual molestation of minors by priests, and it must not be waylaid by reasonable differences over interpreting the problematic catch phrase "zero tolerance." The policy should be specific and comprehensive, built on the experience and rules already in place in many dioceses: Review boards with lay majorities. Widely publicized strictures and hotlines. Educational workshops. Intervention teams to help victims and parishes. Extensive background checks on seminarians, priests from outside the dioceses, and other church employees. Public explanations when priests are removed. Regular reports on civil settlements. Close cooperation with legal authorities. Parallel safeguards for religious orders and their institutions will also need to be established. The bishops should make "zero tolerance" the rule for all future priest offenders and, until their November meeting, the interim rule for past offenders. Eventually a more nuanced policy could be devised that might return some past ordained offenders with records of successful treatment and no relapses to priestly service. Likewise, the bishops should endorse the principle of mandatory reporting laws for clergy. What could confound or delay approval of a national policy? Haggling from Rome, for one thing. ("Words are in and words are out," as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said of the mysterious disappearance of references to the laity from the document issued after the April Vatican meeting.) Let the Vatican take care of its own responsibilities, and not operate as a ventriloquist through American episcopal dummies. A disturbing aspect of Vatican interventions, including the recent meeting, is that they allow powerful American hierarchs to use a Roman mask, forcing the positions of a few on a majority of their fellow American bishops. Approving a binding national policy is only the essential minimum for a successful Dallas meeting. With the full glare of the media on them, the bishops have a major educational and pastoral responsibility to carry out. Anger, mistrust, loss of confidence swamp the church. Either Bishop Wilton Gregory, as president of the bishops conference, or Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, must present something resembling a White Paper with a full account of what has and has not been done in handling clerical sexual abuse. One of them is going to have to make a presentation as finely crafted as a State of the Union address. Neither paper nor presentation should claim to be definitive, to have all the facts, or to assign responsibility. Both can freely admit failures and real differences in interpretation, but they cannot substitute lachrymose or legalistic apologies for real information. Millions of Catholics, let alone others, are ignorant or confused about basic facts not only about clergy sex abuse but also about the church’s decision making procedures (or rather, the procedures of 195 dioceses). This is the moment to enlighten them. There are, of course, divergent diagnoses as to the causes of the present crisis. The debate at the meeting should bring them to light. Essentially, one faction sees this crisis as one of fidelity and obedience to existing teachings and authority structures. Another faction believes that aspects of those teachings and authority structures are at the heart of the problem. The bishops should not hide these deep differences (as the Vatican gathering tried to do) but must test them against known facts. Is seminary discipline lax? Does a clerical culture foster secrecy and cover-up? The bishops will have to distinguish between "root" issues that must be confronted over time-stances toward sexuality and dissent, authority, priesthood, celibacy, women, homosexuality-and those practical measures where agreement and action can be immediate. It would be disastrous if, at the end of their meeting, the bishops look as though they have done very little. But they cannot do everything. That is one of the reasons Commonweal, along with many others, has proposed that a blue-ribbon commission be appointed to report on what dioceses have and have not done about sexual abuse. How many allegations have been made? What has been done for abused children? How many civil suits have been settled? How much paid out? The revelations of recent months seem unrelenting because hard data has not set the context against which to measure individual dioceses and cases. That is a practical problem about which each bishop in cooperation with a national commission could do a great deal: collect the facts, tell the truth, give an accounting to the church and to civil society. The very effort at transparency and accountability would begin to replace the secrecy and close dealing of the Catholic Church in this and perhaps other matters. The toxicity of this scandal lies not only in pernicious decisions over the years, but also in the manner that senior church officials have handled the current crisis. There has been a failure of episcopal leadership in kowtowing to cardinals and in remaining silent. Just as many priests have been affected by the sins of the few, so too have many bishops. Their June meeting gives them a singular opportunity to begin bailing out a ship that is in grave danger of sinking.

Published in the 2002-05-17 issue: 
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