Catholic Bishops Launch Marriage Initiative

By Deborah Zabarenko
Wired News [Washington DC]
November 17, 2004

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Catholic bishops on Wednesday launched an ambitious plan to promote marriage, an institution they see as being under extreme pressure, not specifically from those who favor homosexual unions but from the general difficulty of getting and staying married.The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also approved plans to collect more information on clerical sex abuse, as the church struggles to respond to victims of priest pedophilia in a scandal that surfaced more than two years ago.

The multi-year marriage plan approved by a wide margin by the bishops will include a pastoral letter but also features focus groups -- group discussions -- with single, engaged and married people, a survey of Catholic clerics and a national research project.

The bishops have previously made their opposition to homosexual marriage known, but one architect of the marriage initiative noted that gay marriage was not the focus now.

"The debate about 'same-sex marriage' has demonstrated that most Americans understand and support marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. "However, many struggle to connect this ideal with what they encounter in life. What can we offer them?"

In arguing for the plan, Boland asked a series of gloomy rhetorical questions reflecting the pressures on marriage, especially sacramental marriage within the Catholic church.

He said the U.S. marriage rate had dropped by more than 40 percent in the last 30 years, with the rate of Catholics who marry within the church declining by a comparable rate.

Boland said "cohabiting relationships" are now seen as a preparation for marriage or an alternative to it, in opposition to church teaching, and 35 percent of those who have ever been married have been divorced at least once.

He said the project will only work if the bishops listen to "the ministers of the sacrament of marriage" -- married couples -- in crafting the church initiative.


The bishops also voted to continue gathering statistics on the victims of priests sexual abuse through 2005, adding an extra year to a data-gathering effort.

The U.S. Catholic church is still dealing with the financial fallout from the child sex abuse crisis that first surfaced in January 2002. The bishops agreed that year on a plan to deal with the problem, but some victims groups have questioned whether they have done enough.

The scandal that emerged in Boston has spread across the United States as more victims have come forward. Three U.S. dioceses have announced bankruptcy filings to protect themselves from lawsuits by alleged sexual abuse victims -- including the diocese of newly elected conference president Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington.

The others to file for bankruptcy are Tucson, Arizona, and Portland, Oregon.

Skylstad, who has been conference vice president for three years, acknowledged that the sexual abuse scandal and other issues have made this "a tough time for bishops."

He declined to say how many other dioceses might seek bankruptcy protection, but told reporters, "Certainly I think there are several dioceses around the country in some considerable financial difficulty as we look to the demands for huge settlements" for abuse victims.

Churches across the United States have sold property to help stave off bankruptcy, including Boston's archdiocese, which sold $100 million in land and buildings to pay for settlements to hundreds of abuse victims.

The last public sessions of the four-day bishops meeting concluded on Wednesday.


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