The National Catholic Review
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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.

Comments

Edward J. Thompson | 1/29/2007 - 9:12am
The editorial “Toward Dallas” (5/27) contains many thought-provoking concepts for structural changes that I pray our church leaders will consider and implement during their upcoming meeting in Dallas. The church has been guilty of hiding behind the obfuscation of legal minds more interested in reducing liability than promoting justice. When Cardinal Egan equivocates, “If mistakes were made,” or Cardinal Law stonewalls the many lay Catholics in his archdiocese about urgently needed reforms, then we as concerned lay Catholics cry out to God to change their hearts and ask the Spirit to give them courage to reform themselves and the church.

But reforms can go too far in the opposite direction, causing more harm than good. I am referring to your suggestion that “the church must step in when the police refuse to investigate because the statute of limitations has passed or because there is insufficient evidence.” I respectfully disagree. All of us are protected by the law, even priests. You are correct in suggesting that “every allegation (no matter how flimsy) of sexual abuse of a minor by a church worker will be turned over to the police.” Then you state, “It will be up to the police to determine the credibility of the allegation.” I agree. But after the legal authorities have determined that the allegation is groundless, your suggestion that the church renew the investigation strikes me as cruel and unusual punishment. Let the police do their jobs. Inquisitorial witch hunts after the priest has been exonerated by the police remind me of a time in the church that I don’t think anybody wants back.

Don Jones | 5/18/2002 - 9:29pm
I 2nd the motion on Thomas Hakala's agreement on this article. I hope this kind of view gains attention (and action) in Dallas. Our Calif bishops seem to be progressive, but, there is much inconsistency across the US. For example, TX is a good place to convince bishops of such views. Maybe, this is a good testing ground for Rome later! Also, Hakala makes some good additional comments. Unfortunately, many people want to think "simple", so regretfully, many see anti-clerical similar to "bad" priests in that just a few cause an erroneous public attitude for the vast majority of clerics that are doing excellent work. So much greater must be the sins of these few. I'm neither a cleric nor abused, but, as an "old" Catholic, I like the attitude that we're all in this together -- socially and in prayer.

Thomas Hakala | 5/18/2002 - 1:09pm
I agree with all that the article said, but only wish that it had gone further. We have to look at the whole issue of power and it's use and abuse in the church. It seems to me that the whole situation was made worse by the cardinals' and bishops' arrogant misuse of the power of their office.

Wish you had defined "clericalism." In Richard McBrien's "Encyclopedia of Catholicism" it is stated: "Since Vatican II, the term (clericalism) has taken on another, more common meaning. Less an accusation leveled at the Church by hostile outsiders, the term is now most often employed by Catholics themselves to designate a vision of church that emphasizes its institutional, patriarchal structures and the privileged position of clergy over the laity, and especially over women." Yes, indeed, clergy can display anti-clericalism, count this cleric among them! A huge step towards healing in the church would be a surge of anti-clericalism, which I hope, through the power of the Spirit will happen.

Father Lou A. Bordisso OC (Old Catholic Church) | 6/11/2002 - 6:14pm
While your editorial entitled "Toward Dallas" offered well-intentioned and noble suggestions for future Roman Catholic church policy regarding sexual abuse, I must take strong exception to two statements. Regarding that matter of reporting sexual abuse of minors to the police, he writes, "Third, it should be national policy that every allegion (no matter how flimsy) of sexual abuse of a minor by a church worker will be tuned over to the police." As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I am not bound by law to report every allegation of chld abuse (no matter how flimsy) but only those allegationsthat meet the critera of a "reasonable suspicion." Why should Roman Catholic Church policy be any different in this regard? Secondly, as an openly gay Old Catholic Priest and a former Roman Catholic religious, I take issue in part to the statement, "Homosexual priests and seminarians should not be scapegoats of the crisis, but open discussioin is needed about challenges and gifs of homosexual priests." While I certainly agree that gay priests and seminarians ought not be scapegoats, I disagree that the proposal for an open discussion is needed about the challenges and gifts of homosexual priests. If there is any serious discussion, it should be about homophobia in the church-at large, most religious orders, many seminaries, the hierarchy, and the average Catholic in the pew.

Finally, rather than proposing that the bishops sponsor an anonymous survey to identify the percentage of gay priests, an anonymous survery as to homophobic bishops and the average lay Catholic might serve as a useful tool in helping the church to respond apprpriately to the current sexual abuse scandal. My guess is that to the exetent homophobic attitudes decline is to the extent that gay priests would feel safe about having frank and healthy discussions regarding sexuality. The implicit "don't ask/don'tell" expectation for gay priests only fosters an atmosphere of speculation, deception, and duplicity.

Don Jones | 5/18/2002 - 9:29pm
I 2nd the motion on Thomas Hakala's agreement on this article. I hope this kind of view gains attention (and action) in Dallas. Our Calif bishops seem to be progressive, but, there is much inconsistency across the US. For example, TX is a good place to convince bishops of such views. Maybe, this is a good testing ground for Rome later! Also, Hakala makes some good additional comments. Unfortunately, many people want to think "simple", so regretfully, many see anti-clerical similar to "bad" priests in that just a few cause an erroneous public attitude for the vast majority of clerics that are doing excellent work. So much greater must be the sins of these few. I'm neither a cleric nor abused, but, as an "old" Catholic, I like the attitude that we're all in this together -- socially and in prayer.

Thomas Hakala | 5/18/2002 - 1:09pm
I agree with all that the article said, but only wish that it had gone further. We have to look at the whole issue of power and it's use and abuse in the church. It seems to me that the whole situation was made worse by the cardinals' and bishops' arrogant misuse of the power of their office.

Wish you had defined "clericalism." In Richard McBrien's "Encyclopedia of Catholicism" it is stated: "Since Vatican II, the term (clericalism) has taken on another, more common meaning. Less an accusation leveled at the Church by hostile outsiders, the term is now most often employed by Catholics themselves to designate a vision of church that emphasizes its institutional, patriarchal structures and the privileged position of clergy over the laity, and especially over women." Yes, indeed, clergy can display anti-clericalism, count this cleric among them! A huge step towards healing in the church would be a surge of anti-clericalism, which I hope, through the power of the Spirit will happen.

Father Lou A. Bordisso OC (Old Catholic Church) | 6/11/2002 - 6:14pm
While your editorial entitled "Toward Dallas" offered well-intentioned and noble suggestions for future Roman Catholic church policy regarding sexual abuse, I must take strong exception to two statements. Regarding that matter of reporting sexual abuse of minors to the police, he writes, "Third, it should be national policy that every allegion (no matter how flimsy) of sexual abuse of a minor by a church worker will be tuned over to the police." As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I am not bound by law to report every allegation of chld abuse (no matter how flimsy) but only those allegationsthat meet the critera of a "reasonable suspicion." Why should Roman Catholic Church policy be any different in this regard? Secondly, as an openly gay Old Catholic Priest and a former Roman Catholic religious, I take issue in part to the statement, "Homosexual priests and seminarians should not be scapegoats of the crisis, but open discussioin is needed about challenges and gifs of homosexual priests." While I certainly agree that gay priests and seminarians ought not be scapegoats, I disagree that the proposal for an open discussion is needed about the challenges and gifts of homosexual priests. If there is any serious discussion, it should be about homophobia in the church-at large, most religious orders, many seminaries, the hierarchy, and the average Catholic in the pew.

Finally, rather than proposing that the bishops sponsor an anonymous survey to identify the percentage of gay priests, an anonymous survery as to homophobic bishops and the average lay Catholic might serve as a useful tool in helping the church to respond apprpriately to the current sexual abuse scandal. My guess is that to the exetent homophobic attitudes decline is to the extent that gay priests would feel safe about having frank and healthy discussions regarding sexuality. The implicit "don't ask/don'tell" expectation for gay priests only fosters an atmosphere of speculation, deception, and duplicity.

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