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June 22, 2002
Column #1086

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 committed suicide. 

     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 priest."

     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 one."

     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, and click on Religion, to get details on priest shuffling and cover-up of 130+ prelates.

     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 named Chairman. 

     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?


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