Priests' Group to Take Up Peer Reviews for Accountability; Homosexuality, Marriage among Issues to Be discussed.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The independent National Federation of Priests' Councils meets today in Chicago to discuss peer reviews as a way to improve the accountability and image of the nation's priests in the wake of sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church.

"What I hear from priests is, 'Help,'" said the Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the NFPC.

The Rev. Lawrence Dowling, pastor of the St. Denis Parish in Chicago and a member of the Association of Chicago Priests, said the nation's 46,000 priests can and must "call each other to task."

"Yes, I think we can police ourselves, and, yes, I think we need to talk openly," Father Dowling said.

The new awareness among many priests of the need to improve their image comes from a clergy beset in recent years with serious problems - lower recruitment, steady resignations and the sex-abuse scandal that has prompted some priests to hide their identities in public.

"I told my parish that I would no longer wear a collar in public," said one Midwestern priest who, active in priest councils for 32 years, is ready for a shake-up that will weed out problem priests.

Father Silva said the meeting in Chicago will determine whether priests should issue a statement to the Catholic public and to the bishops. They also will discuss the rise in homosexual recruits, along with the issue of whether priests should be allowed to marry.

"We have to return to a place where straight guys can enter the priesthood," Father Silva said. "Things are out of balance."

He said some proposals discussed at the meeting may cause what the faithful call "scandal to the church," but added that the times demand boldness. "The search for truth in light of the new cultural and historical situation can never be scandal," he said.

Conservative priests have criticized the NFPC, organized after the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, as outdated and no longer relevant to the needs of the U.S. church. They stress that conforming to Pope John Paul II's documents on the priesthood, not association activism, will improve the religious calling of priests.

"While well-intended, [the NFPC] has a vision of the priesthood 20 or 30 years old; their time is over," said the Rev. C. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in the District.

Priests, though answerable to a bishop or superiors of religious orders, have organized into councils based on local neighborhoods and in each diocese. …