Bishops Step into Harsh Light
Sex Abuse Debate: Tense Meeting Expected to Produce Policy This Week
June 12, 2002
DALLAS — Security measures more befitting a head of state than a visiting priest made the lobby of the grand Fairmont Hotel in downtown feel far less welcoming than usual as a slow river of men in black made their way to the front desk.
Three hundred Roman Catholic bishops from across the nation are expected to gather here by Thursday when the annual spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops starts. Uniformed security guards with earpieces, Dallas police officers stationed outside and hotel staffers demanding identification from guests hailing elevators to their rooms were the outward manifestation of the tension-filled agenda of the two-day meeting.
By Saturday morning, the U.S. bishops are expected to adopt a national policy for vetting allegations of clergy sexual misconduct with minors and punishing priests who abuse. About 750 reporters are expected to watch the proceedings.
The expectations of millions of Roman Catholics in the United States weigh heavily on the shoulders of the clerics as they begin to assemble for committee meetings before the official start of the conference. News that two more of their brother bishops resigned Tuesday amid allegations of sexual misconduct only made matters worse. Bishop James McCarthy, an auxiliary bishop in the New York Archdiocese, resigned after admitting to having a number of affairs with women over several years, said a statement from the archdiocese.
Pope John Paul II announced on Tuesday that he had accepted the resignation of Bishop James Kendrick Williams, the first bishop of the Lexington, Ky., diocese. In a statement released by the diocese, Williams said his resignation should not be taken as an admission of guilt to allegations that he sexually abused three teen boys in the past.
The bishop said he resigned so the diocese can rid itself of the cloud "that hangs over it and me."
Most lay Catholics say they want the bishops to produce a strident, unambiguous policy that would defrock any priest who abuses children in the future, and any priest who has abused in the past.
It's a black-and-white policy that some prelates, such as Chicago Cardinal Francis George, have said they will support, but would prefer a policy that would allow for past cases of abuse to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis by independent review boards with lay and clergy members.
"Given today's climate, I'm not sure that any other policy would be palatable to the people," Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch said Tuesday, referring to a so-called zero-tolerance policy. "One lady walked by me and said, 'Thirty years or 30 days — it doesn't make a difference. People feel that way.'"
Imesch, who plans to arrive in Dallas today, said he's prepared to lobby his brother bishops for the most strict policy possible. He expects that the conference will have the two-thirds vote needed to approve such a policy.
"Special interest groups vary in their expectations. I think the bishops are going to come out with some kind of policy that will address sexual violence in the future, but whether they will adequately address sins of the past by the hierarchy is a whole other issue," said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for Call to Action, a reformist Catholic group that advocates women's ordination and married priests, among other issues.
The question of whether the bishops will write guidelines for punishing bishops who have mishandled abuse cases remains to be seen. There was no mention of such a measure in a draft of the policy released last week, but some prelates, including George, have called for the bishop matter to be part of the final policy.
"I think if the bishops don't come out with a strong stance against their own membership, who created the crisis by covering up, nobody's going to be happy," Pieczynski said.
Stephen Brady, president of the Illinois-based Roman Catholic Faithful, a national conservative reformist group dedicated to preserving church doctrine and teaching, said no matter what policy emerges from the meeting, he expects to be disappointed.
"Nothing's going to come out of this, and people are going to be disappointed because they won't address the issue of homosexuality," Brady said.
The bishops have said they don't intend to discuss homosexuality, women's ordination, celibacy, married priests or any other thorny issues outside the matter of sexual abuse of minors.
"So many of the bishops themselves are homosexual," Brady said. "To defrock a bishop or two and throw a couple more out the door would be a real sign of action."
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