Expectations are high for the spring meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Tex. Priests, bishops and laity hope that the meeting will resolve the credibility crisis that has afflicted the church since the latest round of sexual abuse scandals exploded in Boston. The media will be out in force, ready to pass judgment on whether the bishops meet expectations.
There is a danger that, as with the meeting of the cardinals in Rome, expectations will be unreasonably high. The three-day June meeting must be seen as part of a process of solving this crisis, not as a silver bullet that will lay it to rest. Any successful church reform must take place on at least three levels: policy, structure and attitude.
Policy. The bishops must apologize to the victims for the dreadful actions of abusive priests and negligent bishops. No more passive-voice responses written by lawyers, like “mistakes were made.” What the victims and the rest of the church need to hear is a truly Catholic response: “We confess to almighty God, and to you, our brothers and sisters, that we have sinned through our own fault in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do.”
Second, as “penance” and to show their “firm purpose of amendment,” the bishops must commit the church to “a preferential option” for all victims of sex abuse, including those who have suffered from priests. For the foreseeable future, every church entity (parish, religious community, diocese, Catholic Charities and so on) must ask itself: what are we doing to mitigate the epidemic of sex abuse in our country; what are we doing to help victims?
Third, it should be national policy that every allegation (no matter how flimsy) of sexual abuse of a minor by a church worker will be turned over to the police. It will be up to the police to determine the credibility of the allegation.
Fourth, it should be national policy that no priest guilty of abusing a minor should be in priestly ministry. Any exceptions to this policy should require the approval of a lay board and public disclosure of the priest’s past to any community to which he ministers. Secrecy and decisions by bishops alone must end.
Fifth, the bishops should sponsor an anonymous survey of the sexual orientation of priests and seminarians, and the results should be made public. No homosexual priest should be forced out of the closet, but it is time to stop the speculation about the percentage of homosexual priests and get the facts so that the church can respond appropriately. Homosexual priests and seminarians should not be scapegoats for this crisis, but open discussion is needed about the challenges and gifts of homosexual priests.
Structure. Policies on paper are not enough. Structures are needed to make sure that these policies are implemented. For example, although all allegations should be turned over to the police, the church must step in when the police refuse to investigate because the statute of limitations has passed or because there is insufficient evidence. Civil authorities will rarely clear a priest; they will simply say there is not enough evidence. That is not enough for the church. Diocesan lay boards are needed to review and investigate allegations of clerical misconduct. Members of these boards will need education and training, as will human resource personnel in church organizations.
Old structures, such as diocesan and parish pastoral councils, also need to be revivified and taken seriously by both clergy and laity. This will take time and effort. As one wag said, “the trouble with democracy is that it takes up too many evenings.” These councils should also have the right to set their own agenda with no topic off the table.
Attitudes. Just as important as policies and structures are attitudes. For most of its history, the U.S. church has not suffered from the anticlericalism that has afflicted Europe. Anticlericalism is now exploding on the U.S. scene from both the right and the left. Conservatives are tired of churchmen telling them what to do on political issues like capital punishment, welfare reform and military policy. Academia is up in arms over the mandatum, censorship and the silencing of dissenters. Feminists are upset over patriarchy, sexist language in liturgy and exclusion from the priesthood. Homosexuals feel they are under attack. Married couples don’t think the clergy understand birth control, and the divorced feel excluded. Priests (who can be anticlerical too) feel their views are ignored in the appointment of bishops and on optional celibacy.
While many of the attacks on the bishops are unfair and motivated by pent-up anticlericalism (and anti-Catholicism), bishops and priests have no choice but to listen humbly and respectfully to the laity. They must acknowledge and understand the anger that is out there in the pews. They must listen as much as they speak.