The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Bishop's conference leader sees benefits from controversy

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/14/2002

The clergy sexual abuse crisis, painful as it is for the Catholic Church in the United States, will ultimately be a good thing for the church, a leader of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday.

''A boil has been lanced, and I do feel strongly that this is a time of grace for us, as painful and difficult as this moment is,'' said Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., who is the vice president of the bishops' conference. ''The fact is that the pain and the hurt were there, under the surface, for those who have been carrying around this for years, and opening this up helps us to minister to that situation as best we can, and begin the process of healing and reconciliation. It's an opportune moment for us to address the issue, and it's a grace and an aid as we look to the future.''

Skylstad and the conference president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., spoke in separate telephone interviews from Rome, where they spent the past week in meetings with the pope and officials from the major Vatican agencies. Their trip was a regularly scheduled semi-annual visit to Rome by the nation's Catholic leaders, and this time it was dominated by talks about the crisis that is roiling the US church.

''The pope was certainly interested in what was going on in the United States, and he was deeply grieved by the sorrow that has visited the church in our country,'' Gregory said. ''He was very supportive of the bishops, and expressed his affection for the people of the United States.''

Gregory and Skylstad said the Vatican is leaving it to the American bishops to address the clergy sexual abuse issue. After years of leaving specific policies to the discretion of individual bishops, the bishops' conference will debate adopting a nationwide policy for handling allegations of sexual abuse at a meeting in June, they said.

Skylstad said that his own experience in Washington state, where the clergy is required by law to report allegations of sexual abuse to secular authorities, has been positive. Massachusetts does not require clergy to report sexual abuse allegations, and although all lawmakers here now claim to support such a requirement, the Legislature has not been able to come up with language that can pass the House and Senate.

''For us, it's been a real blessing, to be honest with you,'' Skylstad said. ''It allows a neutral party to come and take a look at an individual case and determine whether it has merit.''

The two bishops said they did not speak with Vatican officials about the future of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, and both expressed support for their colleague as laypeople and donors clamor for his ouster for his past failure to keep abusive priests away from children.

''He certainly enjoys my full, prayerful support in all of the challenges that he faces,'' Gregory said.

Skylstad said ''his case has to do with his own personal relationship with the Holy Father, and has to be decided between them. But I consider him a good friend, and he has a lot of prayers from me and support in terms of the pain and hurt he's going through right now.''

Gregory argued that the current scandal has overshadowed much progress the church has made over the last decade in addressing clergy sexual abuse.

''There are 194 dioceses in the United States, and the overwhelming majority have addressed this issue appropriately,'' Gregory said. ''The attention drawn to this situation has clouded over all the good work many of the bishops have already done and the sound policies that are already in place. I would not want to give the impression that every diocese has been negligent, because that's simply untrue.''

Asked whether the Archdiocese of Boston has been negligent, Gregory said, ''I think that Cardinal Law himself has already acknowledged the mistakes that were made in the past, in a great act of humility, and I couldn't add one word to the clear acknowledgment of mistakes he has already admitted.''

Gregory said the church must now work to make sure its policies throughout the nation are improved, publicized, and enforced.

He said the Archdiocese of Boston will recover from the current crisis.

''They have my sincere prayers, affection, and esteem,'' he said. ''There's a great church in the Archdiocese of Boston, there are very faithful, wonderful Catholics, and there are extraordinarily wonderful priests. I believe the church will get through this.''

Skylstad also said the church has made progress on clergy sexual abuse over the last decade.

''We continue to look at our screening policies, but most of the cases we see now are from [seminary] formation programs that existed 20, 30, 40 years ago, so pray God we don't see cases from what we're doing at the present moment,'' he said. ''Most of the cases are at least 10 years old, and I hope that what we're doing in formation [of priests] and screening is bearing fruit.''

Neither bishop said that the clergy abuse issue suggests the need for a broader examination of decision making in the church, or of the restriction of the priesthood to celibate men.

''Some people use this as a platform for those issues, but celibacy is not directly connected to sexual abuse,'' Skylstad said. ''Other religions with married clergy are also afflicted at times by this problem.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A31 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to