Shaken US Catholic Leaders Meet ; This Week's Conference Is a Crucial Step in Resolving the Abuse Scandal and Leadership Accountability

By Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2002 | Go to article overview

Shaken US Catholic Leaders Meet ; This Week's Conference Is a Crucial Step in Resolving the Abuse Scandal and Leadership Accountability


Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It was 17 years ago that US Roman Catholic bishops received a strongly worded report from church legal staffproposing they formulate a national plan for dealing with sexual abuse by clergy or face momentous consequences.

Thursday, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathers here in the sun-glazed buckle of the Bible Belt to finally take that step. Procrastination has been costly - in thousands of anguished lives, more than $1 billion in settlement costs, and lost credibility of leadership.

For many Catholics distressed by the most wrenching crisis in the history of the American church, the finalization of a tough sexual- abuse policy this week is a crucial step, but only the first in a long process of coming to terms with root causes of the scandal. "It's a historic moment in the US church, and an awful lot is at stake," says William Donohue, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "The bishops will resolve the central question of how to protect the kids, but they won't resolve everything."

A leadership crisis

The faithful are looking to church leaders for other actions that show they understand this is a leadership crisis. "That they have not been accountable to the Catholic public is one of the driving problems," says Mr. Donohue. "There won't be peace until that is addressed."

Recent polls show almost 90 percent of Catholics want officials who reassigned offending priests either to step down or be removed. And many say it's time for new measures of laity accountability.

"There's a big agenda now, but not much will happen at this meeting," says Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University in Washington. "A lot of power is at stake, so things won't move too quickly ... but there's a lot of pressure there."

For the next three days, 280 bishops responsible for the 194 US dioceses will listen to advice and then discuss and vote on a national policy to be carried out by each of them. All bishops report directly to the pope, however, and only his imprimatur on the plan can bind them to action.

A few voices from Rome have taken issue in recent weeks with key policy provisions, such as reporting to civil authorities and notifying parishes about offenders. But some Vatican-watchers say US bishops wouldn't move so forcefully without signals from Vatican officials.

Jim Post, a college professor in Boston, thinks US church leaders got what they wanted from the Rome meeting of bishops and archbishops in April: a mandate to develop a policy and a narrow definition of the problem as simply sexual abuse. "They avoided all the other issues, like the bishops' accountability for coverup and the role of the laity," he says. Ever since, the bishops have focused on defining a sexual-abuse policy that would pass muster with an outraged laity. …

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