Bishops' Chief Stands Firm on Celibacy Rule

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
August 29, 2003

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in an interview yesterday that the American bishops were unlikely to be receptive to a recent request from priests in Milwaukee to discuss opening the priesthood to married men.

Nearly one-third of the priests in Milwaukee sent a petition on Aug. 19 to the bishops' president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, saying the shortage of clergymen ought to prompt a broad discussion in the church about allowing married men to become diocesan priests.

In response, Bishop Gregory said yesterday, "Since the Second Vatican Council the question of celibacy has been raised by popes and a number of synods and bishops' conferences, and I think we have a fairly clear position on the importance of celibacy and its relationship to the Catholic priesthood."

Bishop Gregory said he had not yet conferred with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee about how to respond to the letter, but added, "I don't see this fostering another review of a topic that has been fairly well discussed."

Bishop Gregory spoke in a meeting with members of the editorial board of The New York Times. He took questions, but had requested the meeting to talk about steps bishops were taking to respond to the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy members.

The Rev. Joseph Aufdermauer of Milwaukee, who helped write the petition, said he was not surprised by Bishop Gregory's response. "We were just asking for a dialogue," he said. "That was a fond wish, but I think I'm a bit of a realist."

Bishop Gregory said the nation's 195 dioceses were being visited by outside auditors many of them former F.B.I. agents to investigate whether they had put into effect the abuse response and prevention measures the bishops agreed to in June 2002.

Bishop Gregory said the report on compliance would be issued in December. He said he anticipated that it "will probably be a pretty positive review" because few bishops want the negative publicity from failing to keep their commitments.

A study on the extent of sexual abuse of minors by priests over the last 50 years is also being conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Bishops are being asked to complete surveys asking for details about the priests, their victims and how the diocese responded.

Bishop Gregory said that study should be released in January. He said he expected the results could provoke "a very difficult moment" for the church because it will be the first time any institution has studied and made public the depth of its problem with sexual abuse of minors.

"We don't have a comparable set of statistics for schoolteachers, for scouting programs," he said.

Bishop Gregory was emphatic that the scandal should not be used to prompt discussions about the priest shortage or to re-evaluate celibacy for priests. He said the priest shortage was not particular to the Roman Catholic Church but reflected a widespread shortage of ministers in many denominations.

From 1975 to 2002, the number of Catholic priests in the United States declined to 44,900 from 58,900, according to church directories.

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