Bishop Accountability
  Back to Meeting
Catholic bishops are back together, dealing with the same issues

By Rod Dreher
National Review
November 12, 2002

You can't legislate morality goes the saying, which is in one sense not true. The law — any law — is the codification of morality, of what the decision-making body in a government believes to be morally correct. In a deeper sense, though, the cliché is true: The law itself cannot force people to be moral. The best it can do is compel them to behave morally, and even that depends on having an effective enforcement mechanism, and the willingness of those in authority to use it.

I bring this up in light of the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, underway this week in Washington. The nation's 194 bishops are expected to approve on Wednesday a revised (under Vatican direction) code of conduct governing the handling of sexual-abuse allegations in their dioceses. If the bishops give their imprimatur to the new "norms," Rome is expected to accept them swiftly. Thus will the sexual-abuse crisis that has shaken the Catholic Church here to its foundations move to a new phase.

It will not end though. God willing, this is the beginning of the end, but there is no way to predict whether true and lasting reform will follow. The chief problem never was a lack of legislation to govern sexual misconduct by clergy. The problem was that key bishops lacked the vision, the courage, and the faith to use the power canon law gave them to deal decisively with abusive priests, and to promote and provide justice and healing for victims and their families. The problem, in other words, was not the law, but the enforcers of the law. And so it will remain, as long as we have what good Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., called "this hapless bench of bishops."

The revised norms are in some ways an improvement over the policy hastily approved in Dallas last summer. In other ways, they are a disappointment. And on the whole, they are insufficient. But they are something.

On the positive side, the new norms give accused priests the right to a canonical trial, protecting them from summary dismissal from the clerical state by their bishop. Each diocese is required to have a review board to oversee the bishop's handling of specific allegations. The Dallas document's troublesomely vague definition of "sexual abuse" has been clarified. Clerics will be removed from public ministry after even one proven episode of sexual abuse. Proven abusers will not be shifted from diocese to diocese. And all dioceses must be in compliance with the norms (or — what? Who knows? More on that in a moment).

There remain problems, though, many of which have been cited in recent days by representatives of victims' groups. Among them:

* Accused priests will be tried secretly, before tribunals composed only of priests. (Which priests will sit on the tribunals? How will their independence from the bishop be guaranteed? Will they be vetted to make sure they have no sexual misconduct in their past that could make them susceptible to blackmail?)

* The lay review boards will be appointed by the bishop, be merely advisory, and must be composed only of Catholics. (With no lay input into the composition of these boards, how can one be sure the bishop hasn't stacked it with yes-men? What use is a board that has no power to check a bishop's personnel decision? Why must non-Catholic experts be excluded from a board that has nothing to do with evaluating Catholic faith and morals, but only the evidence of an accused priest's guilt?)

* The old norms required bishops to report all accusations of the sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities; the Vatican-inspired changes only require bishops to comply with relevant civil statutes — which means that in half the states, there is no requirement for clergy to report these felonies.

* The new norms allow a bishop to destroy documents related to sex-abuse cases ten years after the victim turns 18, thus getting rid of evidence that could be used in civil or criminal court.

* The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will decide at the outset whether an individual case will be handled at the local level, or by itself in Rome. While this ostensibly makes it harder for a compromised local bishop to skew the investigative process to protect wrongdoers, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, an advocate for victims, sees this as a bad sign for accused priests. "Consistent past experiences with [priests] investigated by this congregation has shown that it has little respect for the rights of the accused. Its processes have been secretive, brutal and shown little evidence of having objective truth as their goal," Doyle has written.

+ There is nothing in the new norms that provides for discipline or punishment for a bishop whose conduct led to the sexual abuse of minors, or who fails to implement the new norms.

That last item points to the fundamental flaw in this entire process: The laity must rely for reform on the goodwill and competence of bishops who have proven themselves to this point inadequate to handle this crisis. The scandal has laid bare the reality of what the eminent orthodox Catholic theologian Germain Grisez, in an important memorandum sent to the American bishops earlier this year, condemned as "self-serving clerical solidarity." Grisez said at the time that the scandal is not about sexual abuse, but rather "some bishops' behavior over many years: they tolerated clerical sexual offenses and even seemed to facilitate them, covered them up, made untruthful statements when cases came to light, and persistently evaded their responsibility for what they had done and failed to do." Grisez called this evil "systemic," and warned that unless bishops were able to regain the trust of the faithful, the truth of the Catholic faith could be lost to many. ("A bishop's untrustworthiness is the seed of skeptical doubt: 'Perhaps the apostles made it all up.'")

Christians believe in repentance and redemption, so anything is possible. But when you read stories this week, ten months into the Church's annus horribilis like this one , in which the Maricopa County attorney says that the bishop of Phoenix is breaking his public promise to provide information on priest sex crimes ("Everything they promised me in May would be turned over in two weeks is still missing," he says) — one wonders. And when you read stories like this, in which the Joseph Galante, the coadjutor bishop of Dallas, complains that he can't convince the disgraced Bishop Charles Grahmann to remove an admitted sexual abuser (of an adult) from the pulpit of a prominent parish — what is one supposed to think about the capability of the Church's governing class to behave like Christians in discharging the sacred responsibilities of their office?

Moreover, why should they be more responsible and accountable, when there is no sanction for not doing so? Priests who offend can lose their priesthood now, and probably should. The new norms say nothing about the bishops who allow it to happen. Bernard Cardinal Law remains in Boston, despite all we know about what he allowed to be done to children by some of his priests, and despite the loss of moral authority his misgovernance has brought to the Church there. There are similar stories in dioceses across the country. Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the bishops' conference, promises that the reports on diocesan progress that will be made by the National Review Board will help assure compliance, because "no bishops will want to see his name on that list." Well, no. But if a bishop's name makes the list, so what? Bad headlines, as experience has shown us, are not a moral disinfectant. The laity barks, but the ecclesiastical caravan moves on.

Maybe the bishops will get it right this time. It is to be hoped so and prayed for. But the events of this year have demonstrated the folly of putting the integrity of the Church, and the safety of the Church's children, in the hands of bishops alone. The reforms we now see being attempted by the institutional Church came about largely because of efforts in newsrooms and courtrooms — civil institutions — and not in the councils of the consecrated. That is a lesson American Catholics won't soon forget, and had better not.

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