It wasn’t quite business as usual, but when America’s Roman Catholic bishops met last month and passed a new clerical sex abuse policy, they seemed hopeful their action would finally overcome months of ruinous scandal.
“I think the church is in a much better place than it was before,” Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said at the time.
In Boston, focus of the church’s sex abuse crisis, the archdiocesan newspaper printed an editorial soon after the policy passed. “It is time to move forward,” it stated.
But developments over the past week in Boston and elsewhere suggest the consequences of letting molesters remain in the priesthood will spin out for a long time.
In Boston, documents that lawyers wrested from the resistant archdiocese exposed new cases of shocking priestly misconduct including sex abuse of teenage girls and drug use and lax oversight by the Catholic hierarchy. More records are still to be released.
Then Cardinal Bernard Law’s finance council granted permission to put the nation’s fourth-largest archdiocese under bankruptcy protection if that proves necessary, an unprecedented prospect.
Law also sought to place off limits a parish that summoned a meeting of concerned priests, while the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful declared the crisis “has taken a sickening turn for the worse” and said it would consider joining those who demand Law’s resignation.
From neighboring New Hampshire came news that a grand jury meeting this Friday may consider issuing a criminal indictment against the Manchester Diocese for child endangerment, which would also be unprecedented.
And nearly 10 million California parishioners got a dire warning from the state’s bishops that a liberalized statute of limitations law could produce a flood of added abuse lawsuits and drain money from the church’s ministries.
It was one of the church’s worst weeks since January, when the abuse problem which first gained national attention in the mid-1980s exploded into a full-blown emergency.
“The bishops in Washington gave the impression that the worst is over, and that they were handling this situation and asking for peoples’ trust,” said Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, a victims’ group. “We realize now that not only is the crisis not over but it’s much deeper than we had imagined.”
Problems aren’t limited to Boston, she added, noting that in Louisville, Ky., where she has just moved, roughly 200 legal complaints are pending.
“We keep being assured the bad news is over, and it’s not,” commented Philip Lawler, a conservative who runs the Catholic World News Web site and Catholic World Report magazine. “Radical surgery has been indicated for a long time.”
He thinks Law and other bishops guilty of the “episcopal neglect syndrome” should be removed, but that’s not enough. “A new archbishop with the same attitude would keep us in trouble,” he said.
Bishops must be removed by Rome but U.S. Catholics “aren’t sure where the Vatican is on this whole thing. They’re not taking radical action, that’s obvious.”
Religion Professor William Barnett at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., said the bishops’ November actions were only a start.
“Until we find out that those policies actually work, that offending priests are effectively removed from ministry, the bishops aren’t out of the woods and regaining whatever moral authority they had,” he said. “This is not going to go away.”
Archibald said that “what we’ve seen in the past year was the tip of the iceberg. What’s starting to come out now is the broad cover-up executed by the church and also the range of misconduct by priests, beyond the abuse of children.”
“The past few weeks have shown we can’t rely on the church to solve its problems internally,” she said. “The accountability and change is going to come from the outside, through legislation, prosecution, and efforts of the laity.”