National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003

A year later, sex abuse storm could bring changes

A year ago, the country’s attention was riveted on the Catholic bishops, the plight of the victims of sex abuse by Catholic clergy and the plans to deal with the crisis at an upcoming meeting in Dallas.

The meeting was a media madhouse, the cameras catching the bishops trying their best to convey accountability and approving a charter that was as severe and absolute in dealing with accused priests as the bishops had been lax and irresponsible in the preceding decades.

The phrase that was used a year ago to describe people’s frustration at the hierarchy’s ineptitude at dealing with the crisis over more than 15 years was, “They just don’t get it.”

A year later, with Cardinal Bernard Law forced into retirement in disgrace and with so much of the scandal now turning on legal proceedings, it is natural to ask if the bishops finally get it, or, perhaps more important, whether the church is moving toward a solution to the problem.

As the bishops head into this year’s spring meeting, they can point to some important steps that have been taken. One of the most significant, of course, was the adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth” and the appointment of the National Review Board, led by former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating and the establishment of the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, headed by former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney.

The board has put in motion a system for checking dioceses to assure that they are complying with the mandates of the charter. This is happening quietly, but apparently at no small expense, since it is the intent of the board to send investigators into each diocese to determine how well local churches are adhering to the charter (NCR, April 18). The results of the audits will be available near the end of the year, so Catholics will have a report card giving a comprehensive view of which dioceses are taking seriously the long-overdue programs to protect children.

The board is also conducting two other studies in an attempt to gather the kind of basic information that NCR and others have sought from the bishops for more than 15 years. One study will try to determine number of victims involved, the number of priests and the amount of money the scandal has cost the church. Another study will attempt to get at the underlying causes of the scandal.

Those studies can make important contributions if they:

  • Involve the widest possible consultation, including those beyond the normal sphere of experts and pundits who can dominate deliberative proceedings of the bishops’ conference;
  • Avoid the ideological tangles and debates taking place in the church. No one group or point of view has all the answers.
* * *

It is encouraging that officials in Rome, who were slow to grasp the depth of the crisis, are beginning to understand both the dimensions of the crisis and the need for action.

As NCR reported in early March, Pope John Paul II secretly approved changes in church law to speed up trials of priests accused of sexual abuse of children and to give the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the agency charged with adjudicating sex abuse cases, the power to immediately dismiss priests involved in “clear and grave” instances of abuse.

Both changes were made in response to input from American experts and church officials who impressed on the Vatican the urgency of the situation.

In an episode that might not seem significant from afar but speaks volumes inside the Vatican about how attitudes there have changed, three Boston area men, a father and his two sons, each of whom claim to have been abused as youngsters by Catholic priests, received a personal note from the pope.

In his note, the pope told the three he “realizes the seriousness of the problem” and “will see that this doesn’t happen again.”

Finally, in another unusual move, a Vatican symposium heard from a panel of experts who told church leaders that homosexuality is a risk factor in sexual abuse of adolescent males, but not the cause of such abuse. Again, what might seem insignificant at a distance is a major point of departure in a church where it is no secret that some leaders want to pin the entire scandal on homosexuality and to move against gays in the priesthood. The message that homosexuality was not a cause of the sex abuse problem could have a significant effect on a document being prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries, according to one source close to the drafting process.

It was a coincidence, said organizers, that not one of the seven experts called together for the symposium was Catholic. That fact is one of the indicators that the church in this instance was after the best scientific information possible and was not pursuing experts who would simply confirm prevailing attitudes.

* * *

How all of those factors will play together in the months ahead is unknown, but they are the kind of indicators that don’t get great play in the general press yet may hold the most important reasons for hope that the church might actually deal substantively with the immediate fallout of the crisis as well as its underlying causes.

That said, one can still find abundant reason to exercise great caution in embracing that hope.

On any given day, a look in on the Poynter Institute’s Abuse Tracker Web site shows that the story is far from over. New abuse cases -- admittedly most from previous decades -- keep finding their way to court each week; bishops continue to resist turning over documents; and where documents are released, the tales are always more distressing than one imagined.

No easy answer exists for church leaders who, having stonewalled victims and transferred abusing priests, now face enraged victims who have public sympathy, willing legislators and high-powered lawyers on their side. How much does a bishop defend himself and the church’s assets? Is there room for pastoral instincts when one is now the target, the “deep pockets” out of which might be extracted retribution for years of cover-up and denial?

* * *

Some groups are pointing to the 1990 case in St. John’s, Newfoundland, as precedent. Archbishop Alphonsus Penney resigned in the wake of a scathing report from a commission he appointed to look into the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the archdiocese.

Those familiar with the case and the investigation by the church commission say that in the 13 years since the report was issued, little has changed. The report called for deep changes in the authority structure of the church with greater lay involvement. According to an Aug. 10, 1990, story in NCR, “The commission noted that members of the laity are demanding a ‘more open and responsive system of communication’ to eliminate the ‘dangerous lack of accountability of the archdiocesan administration and the feeling of many that they have no effective voice within the church.’ ”

Sounds familiar.

If that report spurred significant changes, they have escaped the notice of some leading Catholics in Canada.

Unfortunately, the relevant lesson in that episode is more likely that the hierarchy can ride out the bumpiest of storms. That may be why some bishops feel they can get away these days with window dressing -- a meeting here, a meeting there, a newfound fervor for a diocesan council that they, of course, appoint -- and not fear for the long haul. The same lesson can be drawn from the case in Austria in the mid-1990s when accusations of sex abuse against a cardinal triggered widespread activity aimed at church reform. Again, church leaders simply waited out the storm, and no significant reform occurred.

Perhaps knowing they can outlast the initial storm has allowed some U.S. bishops to not only ignore but to denigrate groups like Voice of the Faithful and to ignore the rich counsel that could be available from lay people who have vast experience and expertise.

If the past holds any clues, the bishops will remain uninterested in any essential changes and the laity will be unable to find leverage to effect any real change.

If things are to turn out differently this time it will be because of the same kind of pressure that finally broke open the scandal. It will be because the lay people who run the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, and those on the National Review Board press diligently for the information necessary to fully assess the situation and then publicly lay out the structural reforms they see as necessary to avoid such problems in the future.

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003

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