Catholic Church
Changes Are Welcome, but More Are Still Needed

By Eileen P. Flynn
Miami Herald
January 5, 2004

Tomorrow the Catholic Church's Office of Youth and Child Protection is due to release a report on the compliance of U.S. dioceses to the procedures that they adopted in 2002. Most Catholics expect that the bishops will receive high marks for compliance. They will also probably apologize again for the suffering of victims and pledge themselves to better management of the church.

The bishops, however, will be making a big mistake if they think that this will be enough. Catholics will not agree to simply let them get back to business as usual. This New Year does not represent a chance to just move on; important steps remain to be taken. Two of these are of great significance: structuring financial reform and tackling the issue of the priest shortage.

Recent bishops statements about how much money dioceses have paid in settlements declare that monies paid have not come from annual appeals or Sunday collections. Bishops suggest that diocesan self-insurance, payments from insurance carriers and "other" sources of revenue, such as interest on investments or sales of properties, have been used.

This is disingenuous. No one has four wallets. In many cases, annual appeals would not have been necessary if diocesan funds were not used to settle claims.

How much is insurance?

How do dioceses pay for insurance? It must be from money collected from parishioners. How much do dioceses pay today to buy insurance or self-insure? Comparison of amounts from 10, 20 and 30 years ago would likely show a huge increase because of the potential liability caused by the presence of sex abusers among the clergy.

In 2002, the Catholic hierarchy of the United States was hit by more than 10,000 headlines about sexual molestation. In 2003, bishops slogged through the disagreeable work of dealing with lawsuits and implementing procedures to make the church safe for children.

Guidelines adopted by the bishops in June 2002 have been put in place. These require background checks of personnel who work with children; training for priests, lay employees and volunteers; and instruction for children. The bishops have stated that if there are future allegations of sexual molestation by priests, these will be reported to law-enforcement authorities. Review boards have been established and will be consulted to determine if allegations are credible. If credible, accused priests will be removed from ministry until final determinations are made. No priest molesters will be returned to ministry. There will be no more secret monetary settlements or confidentiality agreements.

In short, much has been done, but there's still a long way to go.

In structuring financial reform, it is imperative that the Catholic bishops deliver on their promise of transparency. Parishioners have lots of questions; only with total openness will these be answered.

Why dont bishops turn over control of church finances to elected lay leaders? We have the time, the expertise and the interest to do an excellent job of financial management, and, if we had control of the money, the bishops could employ their time to better purposes. Delegation of financial responsibility could work as well in the Catholic Church as it does in other Christian denominations.

Make celibacy optional

Another matter can no longer be ignored: There are not enough priests, and priests are aging. The Vaticans response is that Catholics should pray for vocations. Plan A has been in effect for generations, and for the past two generations, it has not worked. It is time for Plan B. This would require that the U.S. bishops take an active stance with the Vatican and lobby to make celibacy optional. There is no scriptural or theological reason why priests have to be celibate. If the celibacy requirement were lifted, it is likely that many more men would consider the priesthood.

Change would also result in women expressing desires to serve as priests. Someday their willingness to stand at the altar will be gladly accepted. Regrettably, however, Plan C is not yet on the Catholic horizon.

This will not be an easy year for Catholic bishops. If they compromise their corporate integrity and ignore underlying issues, they may buy themselves a temporary reprieve, but the peace that they achieve will be as false as it is short-lived.

Eileen P. Flynn is a professor at Saint Peters College, a Jesuit institution in New Jersey, and author of Catholics at a Crossroads: Coverup, Crisis, and Cure.

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