Priests Convey Concerns to Archbishop

By Mary M. Byrne
Beliefnet [Atlanta GA]
April 23, 2004

ATLANTA -- Catholic priests, demoralized by the past two years of the clergy sex abuse scandal, asked a leading archbishop to convey their concerns about priests' rights to the church hierarchy.

Some 240 priests who gathered here for the annual National Federation of Priests' Councils convention grilled Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee on celibacy, false abuse accusations and priestly life.

One priest argued for due process and the rights of priests accused of sexual abuse. Another told Dolan, head of the bishops' Priestly Life and Ministry Committee, that bishops act like "deer in the headlights" whenever priests dare to question them.

Vacations, said another, are practically out of the question in the current priest shortage; in his diocese, each priest covers three or four churches at once. And another pressed for an official church dialogue on celibacy and the notion of married priests.

The April 21 afternoon session marked an emotional high point during the group's four-day convention, during which delegates and leaders called for a serious restructuring of the priest-bishop relationship and a creative rethinking of the role of the priest in a church devastated by scandal.

"The area of due process will get a lot of attention," Dolan responded. "It's dawning on us this is far from a precise science. The last two years have been trial and error, and now we're seeing glitches that we need to rectify."

As head of the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee, Dolan is the bishops' point-man on all issues affecting the priesthood. Leaders here hope Dolan will raise their concerns to the committee at the bishops' meetings in June and November.

"There's been a lot of anger on the part of priests," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the Chicago-based group, which represents about half of the country's 47,000 priests. "(They) felt they had been abandoned by the bishops, and still do, to a certain extent."

But now, he says, "I think there's a real openness to dialogue."

Since June 2002, when bishops drafted stringent new rules in response to the sexual abuse crisis, accused priests have faced a lack of due process and a perilous one-strike-you're-out policy, Silva said.

Silva, who is a consultant to Dolan's committee, says he hopes the bishops will re-examine the new policies on sexual abuse with an equal eye toward the needs and rights of both priests and victims.

Silva and other church leaders also hope the bishops will take up the issue of celibacy as a possible way to broaden the pool of candidates for priesthood.

"The shortage of priests is making it necessary to begin to look at alternatives," he says.

At the conference, Oxford priest and keynote speaker Rev. Timothy Radcliffe said arguments in favor of a married clergy are strong, but cautioned that a married priest "might become too much a part of the social system."

Dolan acknowledged at the conference that the celibacy issue came up at his committee's meeting in March, spurred in part by 160 Milwaukee archdiocese priests who signed a letter to the bishops last August, urging that the priesthood be opened to married men.

But Dolan warned his audience to not expect quick action or deliberation.

"The church universal doesn't work that way," he said, and then drew an analogy that sparked laughter. "We (in America) cook in the microwave, but Rome prefers the crock pot."

The Rev. Mike Butler, a Colorado priest, says that the increasing dialogue between priests and bishops marks a change from earlier Catholic generations and a rethinking of the clerical vow of obedience to church superiors.

"Obedience, many years ago, meant blind obedience: `You do this,"' he says. "Obedience today means, `Let's dialogue."'

Radcliffe encouraged the conference delegates to see the sex abuse crisis as a moment to rethink their ministry. By looking closely at the example of Jesus' ministry, he said, priests can make sense of the shattering events in the church and their own demoralization. The point of Jesus' work, he said, was not to establish a perfect church, but to offer hopeful signs that God's kingdom was on its way as promised.

"The people of God is holy precisely because it embraces sinners," he said. "Us, in our messy lives, our weakness, our failure. Jesus was not very successful gathering a community around him, so we shouldn't be too surprised that we don't do much better."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.