The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened the group’s meeting on sexual abuse Thursday with a wrenching confession on their behalf.
Using words of penance from the Roman Catholic Mass, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said bishops must take responsibility ”both ‘for what we have done’ and for ‘what we have failed to do.’ ”
Gregory, speaking to nearly 300 bishops and beyond them to the 63 million U.S. Catholics, acknowledged, ”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 to the authorities, because the law did not require this . . . who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse. . . . who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church.”
After hearing heartbreaking testimony from four victims, Gregory said, ”We cannot restore your innocent childhood, but we can prevent the robbery of other children’s childhood.”
The bishops vote today on a nationwide policy for preventing and reporting abuse, and dismissing abusive priests. The Dallas meeting is the first time the full group has met to share, as Gregory said, ”their anger, their fears, their disappointment and their hopes and regrets” since the scandal exploded in January.
Catholic observers applauded his candor; victims said words aren’t enough.
”Never has there been a statement from any bishop that spoke so clearly and unconditionally about the problem of priestly sexual abuse,” said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League.
”Ten years ago, they apologized, too, and we’re here today. It’s actions that count,” said Richard Kirby of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
SNAP Director David Clohessy, who addressed the bishops, noted that Gregory’s ”powerful” speech made no mention of bishops ”who enabled criminals” to be forced out or quit.