Finger-Pointing at the Top

By Carol Eisenberg
Newsday [United States]
February 28, 2004

After two years of insisting that the sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church was a matter of "a few bad apples" in the priesthood, the nation's bishops have been presented with incontrovertible evidence of systemic problems in the clerical culture and of their own complicity.

"This is no longer a story about sex abuse by priests," said Tom Roberts, editor of National Catholic Reporter, an independent, national newspaper that broke the story of priest sex abuse more than 20 years ago. "This is a story about abuse of power, abuse of authority and betrayal of trust. ... Someone has to step up to the plate and be accountable for that in order for this to move on to real reconciliation and healing."

While scandal-battered bishops had held out hope that the church-sponsored studies would put an end to two years of unrelenting bad news, the reports released Friday are likely to increase the pressure on them for greater accountability and lay involvement in decision-making and on those who harbored child molesters to resign.

The unprecedented examination of the roots of the scandal by a 12-member lay panel appointed and charged by the bishops themselves concluded that the crisis was caused as much by a top-down clerical culture lacking in accountability as by the thousands of priests who preyed on children. And it urged bishops who shielded predators to step down, though it did not single out any sitting bishop by name.

Voice of the Faithful, a national lay group formed in response to the scandal, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times today, urging Catholics to sign petitions demanding a more thorough examination of bishops' roles in protecting abusive priests.

Noting that only one bishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, has resigned for putting children in harm's way, the petitions call on each bishop to disclose his own involvement in the transfer of abusive priests. They also urge Pope John Paul II to meet with survivors and take steps to hold his bishops accountable.

"This report reveals a massive tragedy that speaks to the past, present, and future of the Catholic Church," said James E. Post, the group's national president. "Decent people everywhere have to stand up and insist on cleaning up the culture in the church that gave rise to this."

Victims' advocacy groups, meanwhile, urged bishops to release the names of men credibly accused of sex abuse to prevent them from being hired as teachers, camp counselors or Boy Scout leaders. The nation's bishops have removed 700 priests since the scandal in Boston erupted two years, but few bishops to date have named them.

"These priests are not mandated to provide their names and addresses on sexual offender registries," said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "But they pose no less threat to children than other child molesters who aren't priests. The bishops have a moral and civic responsibility to release the names of these child-molesting priests."

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the national conference of bishops, said Friday that many bishops were wrestling with the decision about whether to name clerics removed from ministry.

"Unfortunately, for some who have left, we have no way of knowing where they are," he acknowledged. "It is the desire of the body of bishops to make sure that those priests . . . are not in any position to harm children. And that is something we are grappling with."

The panel's recommendation that bishops who shielded predators step down is likely to be particularly contentious. A June 2002 USA Today poll found 87 percent of American Catholics thought a bishop who harbored child molesters should be removed. Long Island Voice of the Faithful called on Bishop William Murphy to resign for his role in the Archdioceses of Boston.

But in its report Friday, the panel did not single out bishops by name, nor did it lay out a mechanism to remove them beyond "fraternal correction."

Papal biographer George Wiegel applauded the panel for respecting that "bishops are the instruments for the disciplining of other bishops." Others, however, were disappointed and frankly skeptical that anything would come of that recommendation.

"I don't think that fraternal correction works," said Jason Berry, a journalist who broke the story of the scandal 20 years ago and who has written two books about it. "Most of these bishops think of themselves as regents who run their own fiefdoms and who answer only to the pope. The idea that one of them would blow the whistle and call another one down is far-fetched."

Gregory, for his part, was circumspect when asked about the panel's call for "fraternal correction." "Each individual circumstance must be examined on its own merits," he said, adding that a bishop who failed in his pastoral responsibility was accountable to his people and to the pope.

He also was cautious when asked if the reports would begin the process of restoring the trust of people in the pews, as they had been intended to do.

"This is a first step," he said.

"You know," he said, "trust is not something that is turned on and off like electricity. It takes great acts of sorrow, such as we've experienced here, to lose it, and it takes consistent, long-term commitment to doing things in a different and better way to restore it."


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