The Bishops Act

It is clear why the U.S. Catholic bishops adopted a more severe zero-tolerance policy than they had originally intended towards priests who have sexually abused minors even once in the past: the pressure of public opinion within the Catholic community itself.

While it is true that the bishops had not hesitated in previous years to adopt unpopular opinions on such issues as capital punishment, immigration policy, the Persian Gulf War and abortion, none of those stands provoked nearly as much anger and outrage as their initial reactions to the sex-abuse crisis did.

The penitential tone as well as the underlying ambivalence of the Dallas meetings was evident in Bishop Wilton Gregory's often moving presidential address on June 13. He began in a sure-footed manner, insisting that the crisis, "perhaps the gravest we have faced," is not a crisis of faith but a crisis of confidence in the leadership of the bishops. "What we are facing," he said, "is not a breakdown in belief, but a rupture in our relationships as bishops with the faithful."

Yet the first sign of ambivalence quickly followed. "We did not go far enough," he continued, "to insure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps."

The faithful have not been upset with the bishops because they did not "go far enough" or "failed to take the necessary steps." They have been outraged because some bishops covered up criminal behavior, reassigned known sex-abusers and put more children in harm's way, ignored complaints or intimated victims and their families by following legal advice rather than the instincts of their own pastoral hearts, stonewalled plaintiffs, and entered into high-priced, out-of-court settlements cloaked in secrecy in order to protect the reputation of the institutional church.

To Bishop Gregory's credit, he did list some of the same points later on in his "confession" of Episcopal sins; and he added to that a public expression of apology and an appeal for forgiveness from the victims of sexual abuse.

Unfortunately he lapsed once again into explicitly exculpatory language regarding the behavior of the bishops themselves, referring to the "imprudent decisions of a small number (of them) during the past ten years." However, the Dallas Morning News had reported that same week that some 111 bishops have at one time or another reassigned sex abusers.

Since these decisions jeopardized the safety of other young children and minors, they were far more than "imprudent" in their moral gravity, and they certainly involved more than "a small number" of bishops. Of course people should be forgiven their moral transgressions (even bishops!) when they express sorrow for their sins and seek reconciliation with God and with those whom they may have offended or harmed.

But as important as forgiveness is, it only absolves the sin and heals the rupture of fraternal love. It does not address the consequences of ones actions : in this case, those of the bishops themselves. A corporate executive whose mismanagement jeopardizes his company's financial well-being may apologize to his board of directors and receive their collective forgiveness on a personal level; but they would still require the executive to step down for the good of the company. The stockholders would not stand for any other course of action.

Finally, the media. Although in a subsequent appearance on Meet The Press, Bishop Gregory spoke positively about the media's role in uncovering this scandal, in his presidential address he complained that "the image of the Catholic hierarchy in this country has been distorted to an extent which I would not have thought possible six months ago."

If the bishop had chosen the word "damaged" instead of "distorted," the sentence could have stood on its own merits; but the word "distorted" set the wrong tone and reflected at the same time an underlying ambivalence in the bishop's analysis. Had the media not exposed this scandal, including the (bishops') cover-up, countless minors would have continued to be victimized by predatory priests. It is because of the media that children are safer today than they were as recently as last Christmas.

The measure of ambivalence one detects in Bishop Gregory's otherwise splendid presidential address carried over into the bishops' meeting itself. They dealt firmly, some would say too harshly, with the problem of predatory priests; but they failed to apply the same zero-tolerance standards to themselves.

Confidence and trust will not be restored until they do.


Rev. Francis F. Baiocchi

Richard McBrien hits the nail squarely on the head! What we have in the church today is definite and ongoing failure in leadership. The leadership (pope, cardinals, bishops, chancery officials, etc.) is far removed from the ordinary concerns of the laypeople of the church. Most of these leaders live lives that isolate them from the daily pressures and issues faced by ordinary people of faith.

Primary among these concerns is the safety and security of our children. The celibate culture isolates people from these family concerns. It obviously places the Catholic church's public image ("avoiding scandal") above the safety of our very own children. Any leadership that promotes that priority is not worthy of the name "Christian". As one commentator wryly suggested, there will be no closure to this scandal until a Catholic bishop is not only forced to resign from office put is sentenced to prison for criminal complicity and hears the prison door slam shut in his face.

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