After their showdown on molester priests, bishops still face years of work to end abuse

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

After their climactic decision to oust clerical sex abusers from the daily life of the church, America's Roman Catholic bishops returned home with years of work still ahead if they are to abate the molestation crisis.

They must now expel abusers from parishes and other workplaces, and -- in the long term -- attend to the difficult task of tying down the many loose ends in their new reform policy. Among the items on that ''to do'' list:

--Decide how to respond to bishops' own misdeeds in handling abuse claims.

--Extend the bishops' strict policy to clerics in the independent religious orders.

--Get Vatican approval that will make policy ''norms,'' the parts that affect church law, binding on all U.S. dioceses.

--Try to calm evolving parishioner protest.

The policy, officially known as a charter, takes no action against bishops who ignored warnings and covered up for abusers, as critics complained. Church law already calls on bishops to report such failings by their colleagues directly to the pope, though there's no indication that has happened.

But a potentially important step was overshadowed in the tumult of their Dallas meeting.

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, a former Vatican official, Chicago Cardinal Francis George and others developed a motion to ''review the role of bishops themselves'' and assure ''oversight'' of bishops ''in the context of the present crisis.''

The bishops approved that vague proposal and handed the assignment to a committee of seven bishops led by William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., vice president of the U.S. hierarchy. His panel will report to the bishops' next meeting Nov. 11-14.

Also, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating heads a new National Review Board charged with investigating past malfeasance and monitoring future compliance with the policy. The one-time prosecutor says his board will ask Pope John Paul II to remove individual bishops who shielded molesters because ''they were obstructing justice or, arguably, accessories to the crime.''

Religious orders in the United States are another important aspect of the cleanup.

The 162 men's orders include 15,200 priests, about one-third of the U.S. total, and 5,500 brothers. Bishops and the ''superiors'' or ''provincials,'' who govern religious orders, share supervision of those clergy.

The bishops' abuse committee will meet leaders of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men to determine how the policy can be ''established'' in men's orders. The superiors will then take up the issue at an August meeting in Philadelphia.

Vatican endorsement of the U.S. bishops' 13 ''norms'' is needed to make the reform policy legally binding. Decisions in Rome can drag on, and comments from Vatican insiders indicate there will be opposition.

Deal Hudson, the conservative editor of Crisis magazine, spoke with several officials at the Vatican before the Dallas meeting. He says Vatican insiders seem to misunderstand the U.S. legal system, lack a sense of urgency about the American crisis and blame the scandal on the church's enemies and media hype.

But the Rev. Thomas Reese, of America magazine, says the U.S. bishops' leaders are convinced that if Vatican bureaucrats create obstacles they can go over their heads and obtain the pope's approval.

In November, the U.S. bishops also plan to issue another document covering a long-running disagreement with the Vatican over cumbersome legal procedures for defrocking abusers. Americans want to streamline the process.

While the new charter includes some means for lay Catholics to have their voices heard, the Dallas meeting also showed the limits of lay input. Victims and commentators who spoke at the session were hand-picked by bishops, while various rank-and-file Catholic organizations were restricted to pronouncements outside.

Lay conservatives blame the scandal on ''dissent from Catholic moral teaching and the impact of the contemporary homosexual culture,'' to quote from a defeated motion by one of their favorite bishops, Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb. The right is looking for tighter discipline from a forthcoming investigation of seminaries that was called for by American church leaders at their April summit meeting at the Vatican.

Lobbies on the left, meanwhile, are demanding change on matters like married clergy and women priests.

And the latest lay protest targets the ideological center and downplays changes in discipline or teaching: It wants lay power to reform the church.

The major group in this movement is Voice of the Faithful, which has enlisted 14,000 followers in just four months and hopes its first national convention July 20 will be something of a Boston Tea Party, a dramatic event gaining the attention of the church's hierarchy.

Keeping all those groups happy may be an impossible task, but the bishops know they at least have to reach out to lay Catholics if they want to undo the scandal's damage.

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On the Net:

Bishops' Dallas documents: http://www.usccb.org/bishops/index.htm



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