Bishops' policy on abuse: enough to restore trust?

This week's conference did not mitigate criticism that Catholic reforms fall short.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's all about trust, and what it will take to restore it.

The reconciliation between US Catholic church bishops and their disaffected flock was not consummated this week in Washington, where prelates finalized their plan on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The bishops say they've done the job by putting in place a national policy and legal procedures with "zero tolerance." And they've committed themselves to a new form of accountability. Now, they insist, it's time to move on.

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Yet the conference set a different tone from a Dallas meeting in June, leaving victims of abuse and some lay Catholics saying that "the divide between the bishops and the laity has never been greater."

The opening speech by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, had the theme of "comfort" but focused on the unique role of bishops as God-appointed representatives acting in the place of Christ. He then spoke of people "who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas."

Victims were not included in the meeting. Lay groups presented their views on the sidewalk.

The bishops, says John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, were "sending a clear message ... to be seen as back in business as leaders of the church, with a not-so-subtle warning that there are a whole host of other changes people have been advocating that they simply are not going to be bullied into making."

The bishops made a vigorous case that their new policy, revised under Vatican guidance, is a strong one.

But a question lingering among the faithful had to do with bishops setting themselves apart. "They say, 'We've put it in writing, now trust we will implement it ... ' " says Mark Serrano, a victim of abuse. "Yet I haven't seen a single bishop fired this year [for mishandling abuse cases]."

In a poll of Catholics this summer, 96 percent wanted the pope to discipline bishops who had transferred abusive priests from one parish to another.

Along with a revised Charter to Protect Children and Young People and the legal norms detailing procedures for investigations, the bishops offered their response to the burning issue of bishop accountability - "a statement of episcopal commitment."

Bishops are directly responsible to the pope and have no authority over one another, but they pledged to engage in "fraternal support, fraternal challenge, and fraternal correction." And in cases where a bishop himself faces allegations of sexual abuse, he would be dealt with under the charter's requirements.

The charter also provides for the National Lay Review Board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection to monitor bishops' compliance and publicize results.

These are major steps. But to critics, the response deals only with the future and not the actions of the past.

"Catholics are fed up," says William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in New York. "I doubt Bostonians are going to think serious reform has taken place until Cardinal [Bernard] Law steps down."

A cardinal's contrition

In Boston, a former adviser to Cardinal Law, Thomas O'Neill III, says it's good that the cardinal has begun apologizing, but "a good portion of the laity don't view so many of our bishops as having the spiritual leadership they once had, and I don't think he's overcome that."

Still, Law has been embraced by his fellow bishops. In contrast to Dallas, this week he played a highly visible role.

According to Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, who has close Vatican ties, "It's an article of faith that Catholics must accept, that these are the men that God has chosen. I'm sure Cardinal Law asked to be relieved of his job, but was told, 'No, you got us into this mess, now set it right.' "

In finalizing their work on the national charter and norms, the bishops said the victims and press had gotten it wrong about the reforms. The confusion - or differences in viewpoint - may relate to the distinction between the norms and the charter. The norms have the force of church law and call forth penalties, while the charter is a statement of commitments.

For instance, on the key issue of mandatory reporting to civil authorities of allegations of abuse against a minor: The norms simply say the bishops must "comply with applicable civil laws" (and only half the states have mandatory clergy reporting), while the charter also says that the bishops "will report an allegation of sexual abuse against a minor to the public authorities." In other words, though church law doesn't require it, the prelates say they are honor-bound to do so.

No room for abusive priests

Zero tolerance is a reality, says Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas, because the steps set out ensure that "no priest or deacon who has ever committed one act of abuse will go back into ministry."

The norms had to be revised because a judicial process is required to remove a priest permanently from ministry. So tribunals will be created, possibly on a regional or national basis.

The norms must receive final approval from the Vatican, expected this year.

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