After 3 Years of Abuse Crisis, U.S. Bishops' Head Ready for a Retreat

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service [Rome]
October 22, 2004

ROME (CNS) -- After dealing with the sex abuse issue for almost his entire three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory said he's ready for a retreat.

He will leave to his successor a number of long-term challenges, including renewal of seminary programs, church financial problems, outreach to victims, and review and possible revision of the U.S. sex abuse norms.

"It will be a healing, strengthening and comforting service that the next president (of the bishops' conference) will have to provide," Bishop Gregory said in an interview with Catholic News Service Oct. 21.

"I had to be engaged in immediate response," he said. "But the next president will have to come in and look at the long-term structures that need to be put into place."

Bishop Gregory, who heads the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., was in Rome for the last of his semiannual meetings with Pope John Paul II and other Vatican officials.

In mid-November, the U.S. bishops will elect new conference officers. Bishop Gregory said he plans to take some time to reflect on a term that was largely consumed by the priestly sex abuse scandal.

"There really was no down time" during his term as conference president, Bishop Gregory said.

"I'm going to take a retreat in December. I really think it's important for me to reflect on all that's happened," he said.

"I don't intend to try and go back and try to figure out all the mistakes I made, although with any sense of humility I must do that. But I want to try to discover on this retreat the moments of grace that have occurred, but that I didn't have time to say 'thank you' for," he said.

Bishop Gregory said that, in retrospect, the dimensions of the sex abuse problems clearly called for the kind of drastic measures that were eventually adopted.

"I would be one of the strongest critics of my own presidency. As I was living it, I could look back and say, 'I should have done, I should have known, I should have researched, I should have seen the other options,'" he said.

But he said neither he nor other bishops had the luxury of drawing on precedents in responding to a scandal of this type and magnitude.

He also noted that the presidency of the bishops' conference is an executive office, charged with carrying out the decisions of all the bishops. But in confronting the sex abuse scandal, on many occasions the bishops had not yet worked out a consensus, he said.

Bishop Gregory said he is convinced that the process of consultation with the Vatican will be easier for his successor after the last three years. For one thing, he said, even the Vatican now realizes that "time is of the essence" in dealing with problems like priestly sexual abuse.

There may be serious differences to face when the bishops and the Vatican review the sex abuse norms in coming months, but basically they are "on the same wavelength" in knowing that they have to work together and collaborate, he said.

Bishop Gregory compared the sex abuse scandal to the series of hurricanes that battered the southeastern United States this summer. Both situations required urgent mobilization and left people feeling that resources had pretty well been exhausted, he said.

Certainly the long-term financial effects are something the conference and bishops will be facing in years to come, Bishop Gregory said.

He said other priorities include outreach to those who have been harmed by the abuse, support of the many good and generous priests, and support of Catholic laity who in many places are still "reeling from the events of the past three years."


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