National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

Bishops admit lack of skills to be good shepherds

Religion News Service

Recently, Richard Lennon, Boston’s interim bishop, and Thomas O’Brien, Phoenix’s disgraced and just departed bishop, perhaps unintentionally, presumably inadvertently, and probably naively entered the latest and possibly the most honest plea made so far by Catholic church officials in the sad and still unfolding story of the clergy sex abuse scandal: impotence in the first degree.

They each announced the formation, within their dioceses, of an Office for the Protection of Children. In Boston, a former FBI official was named to head it, much as another FBI official had been named by the National Conference of Catholics Bishops to direct a similar hopeful bureaucracy they established A.D. -- After Dallas -- where, a year ago, they decided on a Zero Tolerance, One Strike and You’re Out policy for priests accused of sex abuse.

By such actions, these leaders admit that the church founded on the teachings of Jesus, who said, “Let the little children come unto me,” has on their watch become an unsafe place for children.

These bishops, and the bishops in general, cannot fully understand what they nod agreement to with guns pointed at that space between the top of their shame-pink ears and the edge of their red skullcaps.

As the Phoenix prosecutor noted, these bishops are plea bargaining, avoiding indictment for obstruction of justice by signing, in effect, deals proffered by the criminal justice system that the bishops themselves welcomed into the church at Dallas, hoping that it would resolve the crisis and get them off the hook.

Church leaders who live by the light of their lawyers’ lamps surrender their calling to be the light of the world. Bishops do this because they are fundamentally administrators and, following legal advice, they have applied administrative tactics to the profound moral and spiritual -- that is to say, human -- tragedy in American Catholic experience.

They appointed other administrators to supervise sex abusing clergy; they reassigned them, often with paternalistic letters of commendation; and they used classic administrators’ excuses when the scandal exploded, pleading “poor record keeping” to explain why rap sheets seldom accompanied serial predators to their new assignments.

Their comfort at being administrators explains their discomfort at meeting victims face to face, or heart to heart, and why, as in Phoenix, the bishop issued an 82-word statement dictated by lawyers, a pitiful expression of regret to those wounded by predator priests.

The bishops show no signs of grasping the irony of needing to establish an office to protect children inside a church in which everybody should feel safe, protected not by a commission but by a commitment to the gospel, the Commandments and the trust that is the message of the Good Shepherd.

By establishing such an office, the equivalent of armed guards on the walls and a searchlight sweeping the yard, these bishops confess that they do not know how, of themselves, they can make the church a safe place for parents and children.

They admit they lack the skills necessary to be good shepherds to their sheep. They make clear that they are unable, without outside assistance and oversight, to do the one thing that they are called to do: shepherd the flocks, keep them safe from wolves.

They are good at issuing dead 82-word statements but they cannot feel, speak or respond as potent men who place the lost sheep on their shoulders and bear them back to the safety of the flock.

Plea bargains and offices to protect children may save them legally but they indict them as impotent pastorally. Do they really want to excuse themselves by saying that the flock was violated because they did not know, and now cannot remember, how to be shepherds?

This plea of spiritual and pastoral impotence will not surprise Catholics who for many months now have felt that the sheep are not lost, but the shepherds certainly are.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the recent book The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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