Catholic Bishops Launch Major Reforms, But...
The nation's Catholic bishops have taken big steps to restore trust shattered by months of
two mounting scandals "the sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and
bishops, and the ways in which we bishops addressed these crimes and sins," as they put it.
First, they allowed their severest critics - four survivors of priestly sexual abuse - to
address them in a meeting covered by the press. Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea declared,
"Priest abuse IS incest," and spoke of how children with premature sexual encounters grow into adults
who "spin between periods of promiscuous and self-destructive sexual acting out and times of
complete sexual shutdown." Another told of a priest who so wounded his victims that five of them
Second, the bishops pledged to report any allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement
and will urge victims to do so as well.
Third, they agreed to zero tolerance:
"For even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor - past, present or future - the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from
ministry." Many will be removed from the clerical state altogether, while others because of age or
infirmity, may remain a priest, but must lead a life of "prayer and
penance," and may not "be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb or present himself publicly as a
That stand was controversial. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, NY said the policy is
"not consistent with who we are as a faith community, which believes in forgiveness, compassion
and reconciliation." He noted the bishops issued a pastoral letter a year ago on crime which
"rejected one strike and you're out," and promoted restorative justice and rehabilitation.
The initial draft of the charter would allow a priest with only one act of sexual abuse in his
past, whose history was made known to his parish and who was approved by a lay-led review
board, to continue to serve.
However, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore countered,
"One act of abuse is one too many. And most often it is not one incident but more than
Zero tolerance prevailed in a secret ballot of 239 to 13. Yet many of the victims were not
satisfied on two grounds. First, there is no automatic defrocking of a priest. At the discretion of
their bishops, some could to enter a monastery or a retirement home. Frankly, I think that will
protect children better than forcing priests to get a secular job without supervision where they
might molest more children.
More fundamentally, the bishops did nothing to discipline themselves for having
transferred child molesters from one church to another. How widespread is the problem?
In a deeply moving opening speech, Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops, confessed, "We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack
of vigilance, or - God forbid - with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry
and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse.
"We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of
priests" and "who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that
helps prevent abuse. And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families
as adversaries and not as suffering members of the Church."
However, he also said the
"vast majority of bishops" acted properly.
Not so, according to an exhaustive survey by the Dallas Morning News which reported,
"Roughly two-thirds of top U.S. Catholic leaders have protected priests accused of sexual abuse
in a systematic practice that spans decades and continues today." Readers can go to
www.dallasnews.com, and click on Religion, to get details on priest shuffling and cover-up of
A Washington Post poll found that 82 percent of Catholics and 85 percent of non-Catholics believe that such bishops
"should resign from their positions." Yet none have done so, although four have quit who were accused of being molesters themselves.
To their credit, however, the bishops are appointing a
"National Review Board" to undertake a "comprehensive study of the causes" of the crisis. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating was
A former FBI agent and U.S. Associate Attorney General, Keating will be tough:
"If someone obscures, absolves, obstructs that criminal act, arguably they are obstructing justice or
arguably they also are accessories to the crime."
How vulnerable are two-thirds of America's Catholic bishops?