The Editors

The National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People is to be commended for its candid and balanced report. It is an example of the kind of lay participation in church governance that the sexual abuse crisis has taught us is necessary today. The report calls for transparency and accountability in church affairs, invigoration of diocesan pastoral councils and a role for the laity in the selection of bishops.

 

The report correctly points out that there are two aspects to the crisis in the church: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the failure of many church leaders to respond appropriately. The poor performance of these leaders, the board says, was caused by their misunderstanding of the problem, fear of scandal, fear of litigation, reliance on the advice of psychologists and lawyers, placing the interests of accused priests above those of victims and canonical procedures that made it difficult to remove a priest.

The board pointed to episcopal responsibility as a still unresolved issue of the sexual abuse crisis. In the United States, many expect the head of an organization to take responsibility for what happens under his or her watch. They feel that the good of the organization may require the leader to stand up and say, “I did it. I am sorry. I take full responsibility, and I resign.”

But many bishops who acted correctly are being tarred with the same brush as bishops who did not. Many of the abuses occurred under bishops who are now dead or retired. When the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, for example, pleaded no contest to the charge of not reporting abuses, it was for abuses that occurred under Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, not under the current archbishop.

In judging the responsibility of any leader it is necessary to ask: What did he know; when did he know it; and what did he do?

What did he know? The full extent of the crisis became apparent only in recent years. According to the John Jay report, which was commissioned by the review board, one-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002-3 and “prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials.” Bishops cannot be held directly responsible for cases that they did not know about.

When did he know it? There are two important dates in the sexual abuse crisis: 1984 and 1992. In 1984 the case of Gilbert Gauthé, a former priest, gained national attention and resulted in a multimillion dollar judgment against the Diocese of Lafayette, La. Insurance companies quickly told dioceses that they would not cover sexual abuse cases in the future. This was an early warning that action was needed. Between 1985 and 1992, the U.S. bishops’ conference held closed door discussions and workshops to educate bishops on the problem. At these meetings, some bishops warned their brother bishops, “Don’t make the same mistake I did.”

Some bishops learned faster than others, but by 1992 the conference had issued five principles to guide bishops in responding to the abuse crisis. The mistakes made by bishops before 1985 are tragic, but these bishops are less culpable than those who ignored conference guidelines and did not deal with abusive priests after 1992.

What did he do? At their national meeting in Dallas in June 2002, the bishops adopted a policy of zero tolerance: no priest involved in even one act of abuse could act as a priest again. Prior to the Dallas meeting, this was not the law, and the responses of bishops had varied greatly. Some had excluded abusive priests from ministry—although Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh ran into canonical difficulties with the Vatican in 1995 when he tried to do this. Some priests underwent professional evaluation; others were sent away for treatment. Some had their ministry restricted; others did not.

In 1993 the bishops were advised by a group of psychologists who met in St. Louis that the possibility of return to ministry should be left open—the same recommendation made recently by a group of non-Catholic specialists who were asked for advice by the Vatican. Bishops who took precautions and followed psychologists’ advice may have made tragic mistakes, but these bishops are not comparable to those who took no precautions.

While recognizing that bishops have no canonical authority over one another, the National Review Board calls for “fraternal correction” of bishops by bishops. Such fraternal correction is rare but not unheard of. Cardinal Bernard Law and others openly criticized Cardinal Joseph Bernardin for his participation in the Common Ground project, which encouraged dialogue among Catholics. But no bishop ever publicly criticized Cardinal Law or any other bishop for failing to respond to the sex abuse crisis. Fraternal correction is not easy, but as the board notes, it is one of the things the bishops must do.

Comments

Robert Nunz | 3/9/2004 - 12:45pm
It's difficult to see how "fraternal correction" can override the canonical autonomy Bishops posess and seem to cherish. That autonomy, together with the Vatican's desire for secrecy and to avoid more public scandal, makes it more likely that: -the process of selecting Bishops will change; -that Bishops who knowingly tranfered abusers will be strong enough to publicly tender a resignation; -that Bishops will encourage lay governance participation in each diocese and in the parishes of those dioceses.

When one of their own(Bruskewitz) can thumb his nose at particpating in the National Review Board's work, and threaten legal action, if opposed, the National Conference's leadership will only produce, at best, piecemeal results.

Trust will only be restored when Bishops can insight that their canonical rights and duties are subservient to the primary duty to do what is right,

A. A. Romweber | 3/15/2004 - 4:31pm
The reference in your editorial to the Archbishop of Cincinnati is especially interesting. There is a vast dissatisfaction in the Cincinnati Archdiocese about the hypopcracy of the plea of "no contest" for the sins of the previous Archbishop Bernadine by his successor, Archbishop Pilarczyk. Especially since Pilarczyk was appointed Auxiliary Bishop to Bernadine in 1974 and was elevated to Archbishop 8 years later. It was like giving the sleeves out of your vest.

Who knew what and when?

If this arrogance continues, where can we hope to see any correction of the problems faced in our Archdiocese.

T. F. Stock | 2/9/2007 - 12:34pm
I would add one more question to the three listed in your editorial “Fraternal Correction” (3/15): “Did he exercise his responsibility as shepherd to find out?” Finding out involves more than passive listening. It requires hard questions, first of oneself, to determine the extent of one’s knowledge and understanding, then of those involved, and finally of any “expert” on whose views one is relying. It may also require that questions be asked of others faced with similar problems. It is not clear that this kind of honest and painful inquiry was made by our bishops.

I would also add a thought to Bishop Emil A. Wcela’s excellent article, “What Did I Miss?” (3/15). It is refreshing to see one charged with priestly formation willing to examine his role in presenting candidates for ordination who were later found to be unsuitable. But in the spirit of the call for “fraternal correction,” and remembering that we are all frequently referred to as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” I suggest that each of us, from the throne of Peter to the back pew of the parish church, need to ask the same question: “What did I miss?” After all, it is the assembly that proposes one of its own for ordination. And it is the assembly with whom the priest comes in daily contact. Everyone who knew of abuse but kept silent shares responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen our church.

Robert Nunz | 3/9/2004 - 12:45pm
It's difficult to see how "fraternal correction" can override the canonical autonomy Bishops posess and seem to cherish. That autonomy, together with the Vatican's desire for secrecy and to avoid more public scandal, makes it more likely that: -the process of selecting Bishops will change; -that Bishops who knowingly tranfered abusers will be strong enough to publicly tender a resignation; -that Bishops will encourage lay governance participation in each diocese and in the parishes of those dioceses.

When one of their own(Bruskewitz) can thumb his nose at particpating in the National Review Board's work, and threaten legal action, if opposed, the National Conference's leadership will only produce, at best, piecemeal results.

Trust will only be restored when Bishops can insight that their canonical rights and duties are subservient to the primary duty to do what is right,

A. A. Romweber | 3/15/2004 - 4:31pm
The reference in your editorial to the Archbishop of Cincinnati is especially interesting. There is a vast dissatisfaction in the Cincinnati Archdiocese about the hypopcracy of the plea of "no contest" for the sins of the previous Archbishop Bernadine by his successor, Archbishop Pilarczyk. Especially since Pilarczyk was appointed Auxiliary Bishop to Bernadine in 1974 and was elevated to Archbishop 8 years later. It was like giving the sleeves out of your vest.

Who knew what and when?

If this arrogance continues, where can we hope to see any correction of the problems faced in our Archdiocese.

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