Damage Control in Dallas: The Bishops Meet

By Kissling, Frances | Conscience, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Damage Control in Dallas: The Bishops Meet


Kissling, Frances, Conscience


I was scheduled for a vacation. June 15th, my birthday, was to be spent in Ephesus, site of the ancient temple of Artemis where the philosopher Heraclitus deposited his single volume in her honor. Home also, for several years, to Paul who organized the Christian community there; and, in legend, where Mary Magdalene died, instead, I found myself in Dallas, Texas, where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met to respond to a crisis of their own creation--the sexual abuse of minors exacerbated by a show of arrogance and abuse of power that even the most trusting of Catholics could not swallow.

We are now in the third cycle of the crisis, each worse than the last. In the mid-1980s, the church was rocked by the revelation of serial sexual abuse by a priest. Gilbert Gauthe, of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, was convicted of molesting at least 37 boys and was serving 20 years hard labor. We were told that it was only a few priests and one inept diocese. In 1992, we were once again shocked by James Porter, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who was arrested for sexually abusing scores of boys and girls in the 1960s and early 1970s. A steady drumbeat of "isolated" cases of abuse had led up to Porter's arrest. Church leaders followed a somewhat contradictory pattern: defend priests and institutions while claiming this is not a big problem, but establish policies and work to limit abuse. Defense, however, was still more important than prevention. Priests are more valuable than children.

The current cycle, some say, will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Not only is it now clear that the sexual abuse of children by priests and bishops is numerically significant, but more infuriatingly, bishops and cardinals have engaged in behavior that is as abusive as that of predatory priests themselves. Because court records in Boston have been "unsealed," more is known about the behavior of Cardinal Bernard Law, but Law is certainly no exception. Bishops and cardinals have lied to parents, reassuring them that no one other than their child has been abused and that the perpetrator will be disciplined and removed from contact with children. At the same time, they have transferred these abusers from parish to parish without notifying anyone of the priests' histories. Documents have been hidden from the courts, even destroyed. Victims have been humiliated by church lawyers. The calls for cardinals to resign, Catholics to stop funding the church and the church to transform itself could no longer be ignored.

And so to Dallas: the bishops, the survivors, the emerging, moderate "Voice of the Faithful," long-term lay critics (right and left), and the media. Amidst high drama and conflicting analyses of the problem and suggested solutions, the bishops passed a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." They promised that the implementation of the Charter ensures that no child will ever be abused again.

But are we now on a path where the sexual abuse of children is likely to end? I doubt it. The bishops' deliberated while surrounded by the words of survivors. They sat in stunned silence as tough words were said by these incredible people and then voted for a charter that ignored their priorities. The survivors demanded that two elements be included in the charter: no one who ever abused a minor could be a priest and bishops and cardinals who contributed to abuse must resign. Neither item was adopted.

In an incredible display of double-speak the bishops used the words of the pope, "There is no room in the priesthood for those who would harm the young," in their introduction to Article 5, which stated that abusers would not be removed from the priesthood but only from their ministerial jobs. …

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