Tension of Abuse Scandal Easing for U.S. Bishops
Tone of Catholic Conference Lighter

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Washington DC]
November 16, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The tone and tenor of last week's U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was reminiscent of the days before the clergy sexual abuse scandal, when bishops joked easily and chatted informally with reporters at coffee breaks.

The self-deprecating humor of old was evident after a convoluted discussion on whether a proposed pamphlet had properly explained Purgatory, especially the idea of "Purgatory on earth," in which patient endurance of suffering is said to purify the soul.

As they debated their budget, one bishop asked, "Do you think loyal participation in this conference is to some degree removing temporal punishment of sin?"

Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, of Pittsburgh, was glad that "we're returning to the regular rhythm. Not to have all kinds of extra security and ropes and tape across lobbies to keep the cameras and microphones from clogging the doorways -- it was just a welcome relief."

Wuerl was especially satisfied with the work of the National Review Board, a lay group that oversees the bishops' response when priests are accused of sexually abusing minors. Wuerl has been acknowledged as a model bishop on that issue, having followed a zero-tolerance policy in Pittsburgh since shortly after he became bishop in 1988.

He was an architect of the bishops' 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, which created the lay review board. But he had expressed concern months ago that a survey the board had commissioned at John Jay College, where criminologists would compile data on all known allegations of child sexual abuse by priests over 50 years, would be subject to media misinterpretation.

The study, to be released in late February, will be the first sweeping survey of any group regarding molestation of minors. There will be no comparable data on male schoolteachers, Boy Scout leaders, sports coaches or any other group of men who work with minors. Wuerl remains concerned that the actions of bishops 50 years ago will be judged by the standards of today, when far more is known about the compulsive nature of sexual predation.

In Washington, the lay review board announced plans to release that study along with its own preliminary analysis of the "causes and context" of the abuse. Wuerl believes that will help the media put the statistics into context. "This is what I have been asking for for months," he said.

"In the early 1990s, when bishops were increasingly aware that this was not an isolated problem, we took steps. And I think you will see in the data that, in the past decade, there has been a whole different response to the problem."

Despite an effort by a handful of bishops to cut recommended funds for the year-old Office for Child and Youth Protection, he believes that most bishops are far more comfortable with their self-imposed oversight by former FBI agents than they were even six months ago.

"We never had anything like this before," he said. But since the office has proved helpful to many bishops, "I think there has been a mellowing of that initial anxiety."

Nevertheless, an unease with public discussion of sensitive issues appears to be growing among the bishops. Some of them want more time in executive session, away from media scrutiny. On the other hand, the strain of the past two years has more and more bishops talking about ways to improve communications among themselves in a more informal setting. One solution might be to make open sessions more like executive sessions, where bishops can speak their minds without Roberts Rules of Order or agendas set by committees, Wuerl said.

But Wuerl, who has a stellar reputation for accessibility to reporters, said there were drawbacks to media presence. Some journalists portray bishops as dissidents if they raise questions on debatable issues, such as the application of just war principles, he said. Bishops often self-censor their public remarks for fear they will be distorted.

"There is always a tendency in the media to portray this as two warring camps," he said. "I think there is a growing sense that we're not really speaking the truth in open session."

In another departure from the past three scandal-driven meetings, the bishops dealt with many issues that didn't make the news. They adopted a short statement to help Catholics decide if a devotional practice is truly Catholic; it must be Christ-centered and consistent with scripture. They talked about how they might support the Catholic Church in war-torn Africa. And, amid hallway quips that it was refreshing to read about another church's troubles for a change, they heard a report on relations with Anglicans in the wake of the consecration of an openly gay Episcopal Bishop.

Bishop Alexander Brunett, co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, stressed that relations with most of the world's 70 million Anglicans were excellent, but that there was "impaired unity" with the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church in the United States.

His group, commissioned by the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury, reached agreement years ago on many issues of sexual ethics, including an affirmation that marriage is to be between a man and a woman and is the only good context for a sexual relationship. Likewise, the vast majority of the world's Anglican bishops agreed in 1998 that both the ordination of actively gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions were unacceptable. The Anglican primates recently reaffirmed that, but have no power to impose their decision on the bishops of the United States.

Episcopalians "are the ones that are separating themselves from the Anglican Communion. The International Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, insofar as we have dialogue, are in agreement," Brunett said.

The "impaired unity" with U.S. Episcopalians does not justify stopping conversations with Anglicans, Brunett said. "The Holy Father has made it very clear that he wants us to continue to dialogue to resolve the issues that divide us," he said.

Locally, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is in a special "covenant relationship" with both the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is based on "substantial areas of convergence in our faith, and in our doctrine, in our practice and appreciation of the sacramental order. And, especially, in our understanding of the received tradition," Wuerl said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has sided with the international Anglican primates against the actions of the Episcopal Church, and would likely be at the forefront of any potential realignment of Anglicans in the United States. Wuerl did not comment directly on the difficulties faced by local Episcopalians, but placed them in a larger context of church history.

"If anything, isn't this whole debate helping the Anglican communion to sort some of these things out?" he said. "Is there such a thing as received, immutable tradition? Or is it all dependent upon personal interpretation? In the Catholic Church, that was settled millennia ago."

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