America’s Roman Catholic bishops are hoping a newly adopted sex abuse policy will restore their credibility, but the damage caused by months of revelations that church leaders had sheltered priests accused of molesting children will take years to repair.
At a recent meeting in Washington, the bishops’ pronouncements on issues like war in Iraq and religious outreach to Hispanic immigrants were overshadowed by the scandals just one sign of the difficulties bishops’ now face.
Some parishioners say the church still can’t move forward until bishops who mishandled abuse claims resign or are at least singled out for criticism by their colleagues.
“The problems this crisis has brought to the surface, or created, are so large, so complex, there’s no way this crisis can be quickly solved,” said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Restoring confidence in the bishops, the priesthood, and the authority structures of the church will take a long, long time.”
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops’ conference, acknowledged the damage in his opening address of the four-day Washington gathering, speaking of “fractures” in the church.
But in a statement meant to take responsibility for their mistakes, the bishops at the meeting stopped short of criticizing fellow prelates.
A suggestion by Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., to censure those who mishandled abuse claims was rejected. The final document was an apology similar to one issued five months ago in Dallas, where bishops’ drafted their first national abuse policy.
“Our people are awaiting some kind of sign that we recognize that we have culpability in this matter,” said Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, who supported a tougher statement.
The molestation scandals have sparked lay reform movements that have attracted thousands of members, and they have emboldened dissenters who support ordaining women and allowing priests to marry. One in five Catholics has stopped donating to a diocese because of the scandals, according to a Gallup poll released last week.
The bishops lamented that their Washington pronouncements on other issues were gaining little attention, especially the document opposing war in Iraq on moral grounds, but they also understand that they must focus on ending the abuse crisis.
It is unlikely the Vatican will move to discipline bishops as a way to repair the damage.
Only the pope can oust a prelate, and he will resist doing so in response to public outcry, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. “Rome would never want to look like it’s giving into pressure,” he said.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said a good first step would be keeping errant church leaders out of leadership positions in the bishops’ conference.
During this week’s Washington meeting, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law had a prominent role leading the committee that drafted the Iraq statement.
Yet it was Law who sparked the nationwide abuse crisis in January when he acknowledged that he had knowingly reassigned a priest who had been accused of molestation. All 195 U.S. dioceses have since come under scrutiny, and at least 325 priests have either been suspended or resigned.
The bishops insist they have systems to hold the dioceses accountable.
The lay National Review Board they formed this year and the new Office for Child and Youth Protection will compile an annual report on whether dioceses are meeting the latest standards, and will publicly name bishops who fail to comply.
The bishops also view their revised abuse policy as an effort to take responsibility for their wrongdoing. They see it as ceding their discretion to manage clergy by turning over cases of accused clerics to church courts.
Reese believes the plan will satisfy most Catholics, but that they will also need something more: a sign that church leaders comprehend parishioners’ disappointment over the crisis.
He pointed to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan as a model. Dolan has held “listening sessions” where he cried and prayed with victims and parishioners. Peter Isely, a Survivors’ Network leader in Milwaukee, has praised Dolan for taking the step.
“Most Catholics don’t want to run the church,” Reese said. “If they believe the pastor and the bishop are listening to them and taking them seriously, people are usually satisfied.”