Bishops Look at Their Own Sins
Dallas Conference: Their Management, As Well As Priests' Abuse, in Focus

Chicago Sun-Times
June 14, 2002

DALLAS — As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting officially began Thursday, focus shifted significantly from how to punish priests who sexually abuse minors to how to discipline the bishops who have mishandled cases of abuse.

In the weeks leading up to the bishops' annual spring meeting, much scrutiny was given to the part of a draft national policy that dealt with what to do with priests who abuse.

But as Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, president of the conference, opened the meeting Thursday, he began with a sweeping and unprecedented apology to victims of abuse on behalf of all the bishops.

"It is we who need to confess," Gregory told the 300 bishops seated in front of him in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel. "In my own name and in the name of all of the bishops, I express the most profound apology to each of you who have suffered sexual abuse by a priest or another official of the church.

"I am deeply and will be forever sorry for the harm you have suffered. We ask your forgiveness."

Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea — a psychologist from the Manhattan Institute in New York, which specializes in child victims of sexual abuse — challenged the bishops to go further in their apology, reminding them that Pope John Paul II has cautioned against substituting group reconciliation for the one-on-one confessional.

"Real healing thus demands that Catholic clergy apologize personally to each and every victim of priest abuse; not through eloquent public letters, but in face-to-face encounters," she said. "'Bless me, my son or daughter, for I have sinned.'"

After a four-hour public session where the bishops heard testimonies from O'Dea and six other laypeople, including four victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, the bishops adjourned for lunch and then reconvened in executive session. The private session is expected to last well into the night.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George said he and his brother bishops were profoundly affected by the personal stories of anguish told by the victims.

"You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by that this morning," a weary-looking George said during a dinner break.

Among the victim-survivors who told their story in excruciatingly candid and sometimes explicit detail was Chicagoan Michael Bland, a clinical psychologist and former priest.

Bland, who has worked for nearly a decade part-time with the Chicago Archdiocese's Victim's Assistance Ministry, recalled how he had been sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy.

Among the victims who spoke was David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network for Those Abused by Priests, himself a survivor of abuse by a priest-pedophile. They all lobbied hard for the so-called "zero-tolerance" policy for abusive priests.

Clohessy challenged the bishops to hold themselves accountable for the scandal and mismanagement of sexually abusive priests now plaguing the American church.

"What causes sexual abuse, that's complicated. How to begin to treat or cure these men, that's complicated. What to do when an abuse survivor walks in the door, gentlemen, I submit, is not," he said.

By early evening, George said the bishops had reached a consensus on a revised policy for dealing with abusive priests. Whether the abuse is in the past, present or future, the priest-abuser would be removed from ministry and could be defrocked.

The revised draft also prescribes the creation of a national review board that would audit individual bishops to ensure they're properly implementing the national policy, he said. The Chicago archbishop said he intended to introduce a proposal to add language to the national policy that would hold bishops accountable for their actions in the same way priests are.

But George said he doesn't expect the bishops will have enough time this week to get a fleshed-out disciplinary policy for one another on the books.

"I think it's critical. I don't see, as I've said many times, how we can talk to the priests without including ourselves," he said.

The proposal, as he wrote it with provisions for disciplining bishops even for mistakes they've made in the past, won't be approved this time around.

The bishops likely will revisit the issue of disciplining one another at their next meeting in November in Washington, D.C., he said.

Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, who has been widely criticized for knowingly moving abusive priests from parish to parish during his more than 20 years as bishop, said the closed-door negotiations were "wearying."

"It's very difficult. There are a lot of different opinions. There's a lot of clarification needed," Imesch said, adding that he expected he'd miss the Detroit-Carolina Stanley Cup Finals game because meetings would run late into the night.

George said: "We're not there yet. We still have some talking to do."


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