It Is the Laity's Hour to Shepherd Us to a Renewed Church; Bishops' Once Unchallenged Authority Unravels as They Sacrifice Priests to Protect Dying Clerical System. (Commentary)

Article excerpt

As the bishops gathered in Dallas for arguably the most critical meeting in the history of the U.S. bishops' conference, the historians among them may have remembered something Benedict Gaetani, better known as Pope Boniface VIII, wrote some 700 years ago: "All history shows clearly the hostility of the laity toward the clergy" (Clericos Laicos).

The anger many Catholics feel today toward their bishops and the priest abusers of children and teenagers would seem to confirm Gaetani's cynical observation. But until this third round of clergy sexual abuse--the Gilbert Gauthe scandal of the early 1980s in Louisiana being the first and the 1992 James Porter case in Massachusetts the second--U.S. Catholics generally respected their bishops and trusted their priests. But in the present climate, not even the Dallas heat could take the chill of the laity's outrage and hostility out of the bishops' bones. The climate, the bishops understood clearly now, had changed dramatically, and their once-unchallenged authority and considerable prestige continued to unravel as the chorus of clergy abuse cases rose as an almost daily mantra since January.

Painfully conscious of the dramatic sea change, their president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, acknowledged the role many of them had played in returning priest offenders to pastoral assignments with access to children, and echoed the abject apology many of the bishops had made to their local churches.

In light of many episcopal pronouncements relating to the current crisis, Gregory's' opening statement in Dallas was extraordinary in both its candor and tone--not a hint of arrogance or defensiveness. He came across as sincere and forthright, giving many who heard him the hope that an authentic leader was surfacing in the U.S. hierarchy

Gregory's message was clear. The bishops were prepared to address the scandal with as strong a national policy as they could muster. The present rash of abuse by clergy was to be brought to a crashing halt, whatever the price might be.

The result was a policy statement titled "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and 12 norms for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse of minors by church personnel. Although almost two decades late, both are significant steps in the right direction, and their implementation should prove effective in curtailing further abuse and the human suffering and shattering of innocence that lies in the wake of clerical betrayal--especially the betrayal of the church's most vulnerable souls. Still, a growing unease with the Dallas meeting can be felt among U.S. Catholics and priests.

Hearing the allegations

Some bishops, according to the media, had never heard directly from victims until they sat in silence listening to the moving stories of the four survivors who addressed them. What was it that kept bishops from meeting with their own people who reported abuse by clergy?

Likely it was advice from diocesan lawyers. Whatever the reason, it is sad that a number of bishops had never sat down with young people and their families to hear personally the allegations brought against one of their priests. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have a right to meet with their bishops. The potential for healing when such meetings occur is considerable; and the pain of the victims is intensified when such meetings do not occur.

Article 8 of the charter calls for the establishment of an Office for Child and Youth Protection at the bishops' headquarters in Washington. The purpose of the office, according to the charter, is to assist dioceses in the implementation of "safe environment programs," to audit adherence to policies set by the bishops, and to make an annual public report "on the progress made in implementing the standards of this charter." It is a sad and telling day when a national office is deemed necessary to protect children and youth from the negligence and behaviors of bishops, priests and other church personnel. …