Meeting in Dallas last week, America’s Catholic bishops pondered, debated and then adopted a policy on handling sexual abuse by priests. The bishop’s new policy will go a long way toward bringing all the nation’s dioceses into compliance with legal requirements for reporting allegations of abuse. How far they will go toward repairing the rift between the church and many of its faithful is another matter.
As soon as the details of the policy became public, victims groups loudly denounced what they saw as the bishops’ failure to act decisively. Victims and their advocates had hoped to see the bishops enact a “zero tolerance” policy, in which any priest found to have had sexual relations with a minor would be removed from the priesthood.
But such a policy did not sit well with the church’s hierarchy, which instead settled on a policy that was more flexible — or, to victims groups, full of loopholes.
The policy ensures that church officials will report abuse allegations to law enforcement authorities, something they didn’t do in many instances in the past. But it does not set a “zero tolerance” policy. And it covers only priests assigned to dioceses, not those who are members of religious orders.
The ultimate test of the new policy will be how well it works to protect children and meet the expectations of lay Catholics. Clearly, the church has much to make up for in that area. Consider recent revelations about abuse within in the diocese of Sacramento.
In one instance, the revelation that priests had molested boys in poor, predominately Latino parishes in Sacramento during the 1970s outraged residents of those neighborhoods. Alleged victims say they were told that they had been the only people to complain about the priests, even though the diocese eventually settled suits involving three priests. Parishioners who had faithfully attended church in the neighborhood for three decades learned of the accusations only in April.
In another instance, the diocese suspended the Rev. Vincent Brady following a second allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor. The diocese had settled a 1999 lawsuit, in which a woman alleged that Brady had molested her from the time she was 11 until she was 16. Brady had denied that charge; he was placed on leave, but assigned to another parish after church officials concluded that the allegations against him could not be proven.
Brady’s suspension pleased the woman who had won a settlement from the diocese. But it angered some members of his parish in Lincoln, who said they had faith in him and felt he had been treated unfairly.
Obviously, there is no single school of thought among Catholics about how to handle such cases. Probably, no policy will please all members of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the test of the bishops’ policy will be not how well it makes up for the failures of the past, but how well it protects children in the future. If it does that well, over time it will heal the rift that this controversy has brought to the church. If it does not, the bishops will soon be taking up this subject again.