Bishops Take Giant Leap Forward

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun Times [Chicago ILL]
January 9, 2004

The bottom-line question in the wake of the audit of the Catholic bishops' efforts to prevent sex abuse is whether children and young people are safe now in Catholic environments. Perfectly safe? No. As safe as they should be? Not yet. Safer than they were before the bishops enacted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People a year and a half ago? Yes, indeed.

However grudgingly and reluctantly, most bishops complied with the audit, and many improved their compliance by following the recommendations of the auditors. Kicking and screaming perhaps, they now have in place the institutions and mechanisms for controlling rogue priests. But the institutions and mechanisms are still new. It remains to be seen how smoothly they will work in practice.

It also remains to be seen whether individual bishops will pursue their processes with vigor and enthusiasm. In short, the audit reveals a promising start, nothing more -- but nothing less either.

I will confess to surprise at how well most of the bishops cooperated with the former FBI men who descended on their chancery offices through the last year. Bishops don't like outsiders poking their noses into how the bishop does his work, much less former federal cops. I would have expected more determined resistance to the audit. However, it is better to have former federal cops snooping around than local journalists -- or tort lawyers.

Perhaps many of the bishops have come to terms with a climate in which they will no longer be able to cloak themselves in a mantle of secrecy. However undesirable the situation, they have begun to sense that they are now doing their work in the public domain. To use a metaphor from the New Testament, they have adjourned from the closet to the housetop.

There doubtless will be mistakes up there on the housetop. New games and new rules are hard to learn. Yet the charter and the audit suggest a major turning point in the history of the Catholic hierarchy in this country. They might not have wanted an audit by laymen, commissioned by a lay board, but their leaders were smart enough to know that it had to be, and the others went along, if in some cases only because they had no real choice.

It is a measure of the justified anger of the victims of abuse that they issued a strong critique of the audit before they could have read it and thus earned themselves equal billing in the media -- whether their critique was valid or not. It is a measure of the bishops' lack of credibility that they are subject to such hostile spins on their work. Those among them who think they can now go beyond the sexual abuse crisis are kidding only themselves. Their credibility as a group is still at ground zero. If they continue their project of hassling the laity about birth control and Catholic politicians about gays, they will run the risk of being dismissed once more as hypocrites. The audit is both a step to making the church safer for kids and a step in rehabilitating their credibility as religious leaders.

I am no fan of the hierarchy as a group (although I admire some of them), yet I must say that they have made a good beginning in taking these two steps. Now one can only hope and pray that the Vatican does not intervene to force them to reassign abusing priests -- a move that would cut the ground out from under the American hierarchy's best efforts.

Does that mean that Catholics ought to trust their bishops? They should trust their own bishop to the extent that he was won their trust. It is no longer to be given automatically and as a matter of course. Bishops today (and parish priests, too) have to win the trust and respect of the laity. They might not like this change in the rules, but, on reflection, the more intelligent ones (there are a few) will realize that this is the better way.

As for the hierarchy as a group, perhaps the best way to describe the current situation is that they have begun to pull out of the hole they dug for themselves. How long and how hard they will pull remains to be seen.


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