Catholic Bishops Issue Call for Iraq 'Transition'

By Ann Rodgers
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 13, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Decrying "political stalemate" in Baghdad and Washington, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will reiterate its call for a "responsible transition" that gets U.S. troops home without a sudden, precipitous withdrawal from Iraq.

"We don't advocate for retreat. Neither do we advocate staying the course. We advocate for responsible transition" that takes into account the humanitarian crisis that the war has precipitated, said Bishop Thomas Wenski, of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Policy.

This is at least the sixth statement that the bishops or their representatives have issued on Iraq since September 2002 when they raised "serious questions about the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq." But, at the time, their words were all but lost in the avalanche of media attention to reports about the failure of some bishops to respond to reports of sexual abuse by priests. But, regarding Iraq, the bishops were far quicker with their qualms than they were 40 years earlier during the Vietnam war. Although they condemned the war in 1971 -- which made an impact on a middle America that often disapproved of protesting "hippies" -- their statements earlier in the war were more equivocal.

This statement will be released by their president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., but with the affirmation of the full body of bishops, which was given yesterday. Bishop Skylstad indicated that changes might be made to the draft discussed at yesterday's meeting, based on other bishops' comments there.

Still, the issue of sexual abuse clouded the bishops' agenda. Outside their hotel, abuse survivors protested the expected ascension of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to their presidency, because they believe he has mishandled cases in Chicago.

In their meeting, the bishops received a report from researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who they commissioned to do a study on what led some priests to abuse minors and why more bishops didn't intervene sooner.

Although the researchers cautioned that they have just begun their three-year study, they said early findings contradict some common assumptions. While many people believe there is something unique about the pattern of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, their preliminary studies indicate that the pattern of abuse -- which peaked in the 1970s -- parallels trends in the wider society.

That "is in conflict with the idea that there was something distinctive about the Catholic Church that led to the abuse of minors," said researcher Karen Terry.

The researchers also challenged a theory that lax teaching of moral theology in seminaries beginning in the 1970s led to the abuse. Of more than 4,000 priests who are known to have abused minors between 1950 and 2002, Ms. Terry said, 90 percent were ordained before 1980 and 70 percent were ordained before 1970.

While the sex abuse study will be voluminous, the draft of the Iraq statement was 21/2 pages long.

"We are alarmed by the political and partisan stalemate in Washington," it said.

"Some policy makers seem to fail to recognize sufficiently the reality and failures in Iraq and the imperative for new directions. Others seem to fail to recognize sufficiently the potential human consequences of very rapid withdrawal."

The paper stressed that they were offering moral guidance, not tactical advice. But it called for "more sustained U.S. efforts to collaborate with the other nations, including Iran and Syria" in a broader context of working for "a just peace" between the Israelis and Palestinians. It urged the U.S. not to seek permanent military bases in Iraq and to direct more efforts toward helping refugees, including Christians and other minorities.

"In all military actions, ethical norms require protecting civilians, using proportionate and discriminate force, rejecting torture and fighting terrorism with nonmilitary means and the legitimate use of force when necessary," the draft said.

"The morally and politically demanding, but carefully limited goal of responsible transition should aim to reduce further loss of life and to address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the refugee crisis in the region, the need to help rebuild the country, and human rights, especially religious freedom," the draft added.

Their unanimous call for Bishop Skylstad to send a possibly revised draft to government leaders indicated that the bishops supported its general tone, but some wanted a stronger statement about terrorism.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki quoted a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which he drew a parallel between the rise of terrorism in the name of Islam and the rise of European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s.

"I would like more balance in recognition of that reality," he said.

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said he shared Bishop Paprocki's concern. He liked the statement as a whole but believed it may overestimate the diplomatic possibilities.

"When I make decisions in my diocese, there are things that only I know. When decisions are made by the government, there are things that only they know. We have to give a little benefit of the doubt. We are dealing with forces that have not been open to diplomatic channels . We are entering uncharted territories because of the mind set of people whose intent is to destroy people who don't think like they do," he said.

Although the bishops had warned of serious moral problems with the invasion of Iraq before it took place, "this statement resists the temptation of saying I told you so," Bishop Wenski said. "This statement is not an effort to go back and re-argue whether the invasion was justified or not. The fact that we have invaded Iraq means we have assumed new moral obligations to the Iraqi people and our own people ... Those moral obligations call us to a responsible transition not to retreat and leave behind a situation that is worse."

Bishop Wenski said he believed the bishops' prior statements had made some impact in Washington. He noted that they had coined the term "responsible transition" in a January 2006 statement, months before the appointment of the Iraq Study Group, which later adopted the same phrase "hopefully because they read our paper on it," he said.

"We have been in conversation with [lawmakers] who expressed a great deal of interest in hearing from us. They are looking for some moral guidance," he said.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


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