How US Catholic reforms will play in pews

Bishops' charter on abuse mollifies some critics; distances US church from Vatican.

In their historic gathering here, the top leaders of the US Catholic Church showed a new face to the faithful, as they sought to stem growing distrust over the church's sexual abuse scandal.

Both by tone and action, the American bishops demonstrated their awareness of the depth of the crisis facing the church. They understand that the laity sees their failure to act as the heart of the crisis – and that the concerns go beyond the clergy-abuse issue.

After hearing first-hand the heartrending stories of victims of abuse, as well as unusually blunt talk from prominent lay critics, the bishops carried on the debate in clearly humbled fashion.

And while their new charter to protect children – approved 239 to 13 – fails to satisfy critics in several ways, it represents an unprecedented step in the direction of accountability.

Bishops answer to no one but the pope, but they'll now be under the spotlight of an annual audit on how they're carrying out the new policy. "What is genuinely new is the element of oversight," said Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago.

A committee of the US Conference of Bishops (USCCB) will also prepare a report for their next meeting in November on the bishops' role in the scandal and measures of accountability. The USCCB will also work with superiors of religious orders to include them in the same policy.

"Until we can develop ways of being more accountable, there will still be an unanswerable issue that plagues this moment in the life of the church," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, the USCCB's modest and forthright president who led the three-day meeting through Saturday.

A new national Office for Child and Youth Protection will help dioceses carry out safe-environment programs as well as the annual audit, and publish a progress report, including a list of dioceses not in compliance. A lay review board of prominent Catholics will help oversee the office and make recommendations to dioceses. It will also carry out studies on the scope of sexual abuse, including statistics on perpetrators and victims.

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who was named Friday to head the board, perhaps signaled a new era when, at his introductory press conference, he unhesitatingly called for removal of bishops who protected abusive priests.

Breaking with the past

This gathering was unprecedented in other several ways. Despite dealing with the sexual-abuse problem since 1985, the conference had never before heard directly from victims. The president's opening statement was a bold confession and apology for the bishops' role in the crisis, setting the tone for his colleagues. For the first time, officials who are regularly addressed as "your eminence" received a "dressing down" from lay leaders invited to speak to them.

And, for the first time, nobody was asking what Rome thinks.

"The meeting was a watershed event in terms of the bishops worrying more about what their people think than what the Vatican thinks," says Father Reese, a scholar on the US hierarchy and the Vatican.

At times, speeches were blunt.

R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for American Catholicism at Notre Dame, called the crisis a moral one rooted in a closed clerical culture, adding that at this moment the people "are not comparing you to Christ and the apostles.

"I do not exaggerate by saying that the future of the church in this country depends upon your sharing authority with the laity," he told them. He also urged them to think of the church as a national body, and form policies appropriate to the US: "Let Rome be Rome; it will be in any case."

Some bishops were confident they could act and Rome would go along. "My impression is that [Vatican officials] understand our situation and are ready to help us," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

New measures

On the most controversial aspect of the charter – zero tolerance for offending priests – the bishops decreed that from now on, any priest found to have engaged in a single act of child sexual abuse will be removed from ministry and not receive a future assignment. But not all will be laicized, or removed from the priesthood altogether. Those not laicized would have to lead a life of prayer and penance, and would not be allowed to wear clerical garb, celebrate Mass publicly, or present themselves publicly as priests.

The USCCB calls this zero tolerance, but others disagree.

"The policy seems to be one strike and you move to some restricted ministry," says David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. "They can't be monitored around the clock.... Parents still won't feel their children are 100 percent safe."

Insufficient redress?

Another criticism: The accountability measures lack significant penalties for noncompliance, say critics. Victims' groups were also distressed that nothing was done about bishops who failed to remove abusive priests; no promise was made to turn over files of alleged past offenders; and, despite the pledge not to require confidentiality in future settlements, they did not release victims from existing confidentiality agreements.

"The document is the best the church has ever put out," Mr. Clohessy acknowledged, "but we will have to see if it is implemented."

The charter also requires that allegations of sexual abuse against a minor be reported to civil authorities. It mandates Diocesan programs to aid victims as well as review boards with a majority of lay members to assess fitness of priests.

"Our actions today are not a panacea," Bishop Gregory said. "As the victim/survivors told us, 'Listening is easy. Talk is cheap. Action is priceless'.... Ultimately that is how we will be judged."

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