Editor's Desk: Becoming Transparent

By Michael F. Flach
Catholic Herald [Arlington VA]
November 27, 2003

U.S. Catholic bishops have been walking a fine line since their meeting in Dallas in June 2002 when it comes to communicating with the nation's Catholics about the ongoing sexual abuse crisis. Catholic editors ask themselves: Are Catholics tired of hearing about the Church's problems? Have we reached the saturation point? Will things ever return to normal?

Article 7 of The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People states: "Each diocese/eparchy will develop a communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness. Within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved, dioceses/eparchies will deal as openly as possible with members of the community. This is especially so with regard to assisting and supporting parish communities directly affected by ministerial misconduct involving minors."

The bishops' pledge to become transparent is difficult to fulfill without the proper communications vehicles in place at the local level. Most dioceses have a weekly or monthly publication to help spread the message among Catholics. But it remains a challenge to have this same message appear in the secular arena, which thrives on controversy and conflict and can display an anti-Catholic bias.

The U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, chaired by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, brought special attention to the area of communications in its recent report to the bishops. The committee expressed unanimous support for the development of both national and local communications strategies for the coming year.

"One recent survey indicated that half of the Catholic people were not aware of the initiatives the bishops and the dioceses have adopted in the face of the sexual abuse crisis," Archbishop Flynn said.

In the coming month there are three major reports that will be forthcoming: the Audit Report, the John Jay Study Report and an Interim Report from the National Review Board.

"Each of these will be of national and local interest," the archbishop said. He promised that his Ad Hoc Committee will work closely with the bishops' Committee on Communications, the Conference Communications Department and the National Review Board to develop a full communications plan for the coming months.

The Charter, and its accompanying norms, were approved for a period of two years. A review of these documents is expected to be completed and presented to the bishops in November 2004. In the interim, another important task for the Ad Hoc Committee is to meet on a regular basis with the officers of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in order to come to common understandings on the application of the U.S. Essential Norms regarding sexual abuse.

The bishops emphasize in the Charter's conclusion that sexual abuse of young people is not a problem inherent in the Catholic priesthood, nor are priests the only ones in society guilty of it.

"The vast majority of our priests are faithful in their ministry and happy in their vocations," the bishops said. "Their people are enormously appreciative of the ministry provided by their priests. In the midst of trial, this remains a cause for rejoicing. We deeply regret that any of our decisions have obscured the good work of our priest, for which their people hold them in such respect."

The challenge for the bishops and the Catholic press in the coming months is to balance this message of a healthy priesthood, while remaining transparent when the news isn't as flattering. M.F.F.

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