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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Bishops seek a reprieve

Our bishops, it seems, want a time-out.

At their Nov. 15-17 meeting (it was to run to Nov. 18, but they managed to complete their agenda a day early), the body of bishops laid out plans for the future of their conference. Bottom line: less public discussion of pressing issues, more private time to contemplate such pastoral concerns as priestly formation and the centrality of the Eucharist, fewer statements on what many perceive as secondary issues, and tighter reins on their bureaucracy.

People of goodwill may differ on the merits of each of these inclinations. The bishops, for example, are certainly entitled to time together, outside the spotlight, to share experiences and formulate positions. They are, after all, colleagues, and it’s hard to be collegial when a few members steal the public limelight or, conversely, the fear of a public misstatement or mischaracterization leads to silence. Plus, the world won’t suffer much if our church leaders decide that their collective opinion on this or that hot topic will not be forthcoming; and, bureaucracies being what they are, it is hard to argue with the notion that priorities must be established and budgets adhered to.

But, taken together, and in the context of the last three years, these individual notions paint a disturbing picture. And, of course, it all goes back to the problem that won’t go away.

The clergy sex abuse crisis is for Catholics like desert sand that gets into everything. It annoys and blinds and at times makes things break down. You might want to ignore it but it just won’t allow you to.

Take, for example, the election of Spokane, Wash., Bishop William Skylstad as president of the conference. Skylstad is, by most measures, perfect for the job. Moderate in tone, pastoral in style, the 70-year-old bishop has diligently pursued the work of the conference for nearly three decades. A solid guy.

And yet, there’s the desert sand. Back in Spokane, Skylstad is dealing with the fallout of sex abuse cases, the most notable of which involves crimes committed three decades ago by a former priest at a parish pastored by Fr. Skylstad. And now the diocese is pursuing a bankruptcy claim, a step necessitated, says Skylstad, by the need to keep the church functioning in that northwest corner of the country and by the desire to treat victims equitably.

Skylstad, of course, is not alone. Every one of the 10 candidates for president of the bishops’ conference has his own stories related to the crisis -- sins of omission and commission about which abuse survivors can cite chapter and verse. It is pervasive.

So it is in this environment, in this context, that the bishops come to the conclusion that they should do more of their work behind closed doors. They want more time without the press or their “nonessential staff” present.

And how will they use that time? To consider, for example, such “pastoral issues” as the centrality of the Eucharist in church life. This is, to be sure, a worthy discussion. But is the range of opinion so great, the fear of misstatement so profound, that this is a topic that cannot be broached in public? Apparently.

More than two years ago, at their Dallas meeting, the bishops pledged themselves to greater transparency and accountability. And, collectively, they have taken strides few would have thought possible in the pre-crisis American church -- empanelling a lay review board, enacting a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy for abusive priests, implementing child protection programs at the diocesan level, commissioning reports that have begun to put the crisis in historical and sociological perspective. All to the good.

But today, more than 70 percent of American Catholics believe the sex-abuse cover-up is worse than the sex abuse itself, according to recent findings from researchers at The Catholic University of America and Purdue University. The blame, and the shame, goes to the bishops. It is precisely the wrong time, therefore, to enact a policy of benign neglect, to hide from critics, to gather privately in the comfort of colleagues.

It isn’t that Catholics don’t want to forgive or trust their bishops, they just don’t know what they are forgiving or what they can trust. Their understanding of what’s missing is as deep in their bones as the sacramental teaching they learned as youngsters.

And what’s missing is what has bedeviled church leaders since the scandal was first unearthed 20 years ago -- an accounting by individual bishops of what went wrong. Our sacramental theology says that the sin must be named before it can be forgiven.

We’re still waiting for the bishop to come forward and say: “Dear church, here is precisely what was done in your name during my watch. Here is the number of abusing priests I transferred; the amount of money I took from the community’s treasury to pay for silence; the number of victims abused in this diocese. This is how many I countersued; this is the number of victims to whom I have never spoken. For all of these things I am sorry.” And let the consequences fall as they will.

Perhaps that is asking too much. Perhaps the greatest crisis in the history of the church in the United States will remain, save for a few exceptions where the press is able to ferret out documents, a grand abstraction caused by something called “the diocese” and a host of undifferentiated “mistakes.”

Much accounting has been forced from bishops in the last few years, but they have never closed the loop, if you will, in the sacramental sense, in that deep way that restores trust among humans and, in this case, between the leaders and the community.

So the talk of Eucharist, for instance, will proceed to a certain point, we suspect, behind closed doors and among colleagues. But it is difficult to explore something as profound as the Eucharist without the rest of the community. And the rest of the community is still at odds, still suspicious, still wondering what it can trust.

A time-out might be necessary. But when it’s over, the community will still be waiting outside the door.

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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