Inaction by the Catholic bishops in America over child abuse by priests has enraged many Catholics and placed the church in enormous moral and financial jeopardy. Have the bishops, meeting to decide a new policy, gone far enough to restore confidence in them, and the church?
THE meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ended on Saturday in Dallas with its task half-done. The bishops agreed, by 239 votes to 13, that any priest who had committed even one act of sexual abuse should be permanently removed from his ministry. Yet they did not say they should cease to be priests, and they went no further towards holding their colleagues, or themselves, responsible for failing to remove such priests before. There was a certain amount of public remorse, including tears; but if the victims of clerical sexual abuse—four of whom addressed the conference as it opened—had hoped for showy resignations, they did not get them.
Since January, when the revelations of sexual abuse or misconduct by priests began to surface in the press, more than 200 priests, out of just over 46,000 in the United States, have either resigned or been removed from their ministries. Several bishops, too, have resigned. At the end of May, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee stepped down, with a public apology, after revealing that he had not only had an “inappropriate relationship” with a graduate student, but had paid him more than $450,000, some of it from diocesan funds, to keep the matter quiet. As more and more victims emerge, the church faces possible legal settlements amounting to billions of dollars.
The number of offenders may seem relatively small; but in a sacred priesthood a few lapses have a disproportionate effect, and the faith of many Catholics has been profoundly shaken. They are most appalled by the way the hierarchy have protected their own: by the way, for example, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston moved several offending priests around from parish to parish, where they simply repeated their offences. Press reports revealed that, in many dioceses, such behaviour among priests was viewed as an internal disciplinary matter, to be hushed up and certainly not to be reported to the secular authorities. The laity hoped that the Dallas meeting, as well as voting for “zero tolerance”—which, in effect, it did—would also insist on full accountability by bishops for the actions of their priests. They did not get that.
The bishops have set up a committee which will spend six months studying the question of accountability. They are supposed to consult with lay review boards on how to deal with individual offenders, and must report allegations of abuse to the secular authorities. Their “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People”, the document they approved on Friday, is meant to bind them to common rules, the first time such a national policy has been adopted. But there are signs already that bishops are interpreting the penal clauses in different ways. Some have already been actively removing priests from their ministries and, in effect, turning them over for investigation by police and district attorneys. Others still remain to be persuaded that sexual abuse is a crime, rather than an error of judgment for which priests should be forgiven in the Christian fashion.
The charter still needs the approval of the religious orders, who account for about one third of America’s priests, and of the Vatican itself. That last hurdle may require more compromises in a document that is already only half-satisfactory. In May, when the 12 American cardinals were summoned to the Vatican to discuss the scandal with the pope, John Paul II evidently still thought it had to be treated as a matter for internal discipline. The Vatican, even more than the American bishops, protects its own and believes that the clergy should not be answerable to secular institutions. In particular, it is very reluctant to remove priests from the priesthood for any reason. In the past, this aggressive independence has often been a source of strength and integrity for the church. In the present case, it may do it untold damage.