The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Bishops' task: regaining trust

Law, fellow clerics now face challenge behind new charter

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 6/16/2002

DALLAS - Vowing to rebuild confidence in their shaken church, the Catholic bishops of the United States yesterday returned home to set about removing abusive priests from ministry, reaching out to victims, and healing the deep wound in the nation's largest religious denomination.

The bishops acknowledged that many questions remain unanswered. They could not say whether the Vatican might demand changes in the policy overwhelmingly approved by the American bishops on Friday. They could not say how many priests will lose their jobs as a result of the policy's requirement that no priest who has ever abused a child serve in ministry. And they could not say how long it will take to regain the trust they have lost through their own past failure to keep predatory priests away from children.

''We've put ourselves squarely on line, on record, both morally and in a legal way, to protect children and young people,'' said Bishop Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas, where the bishops closed their emotional three-day meeting on clergy sexual abuse yesterday with a morning of prayer. ''We have opened ourselves willingly, and with a great desire, to continuing public scrutiny.''

Some bishops, in particular Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, face ongoing challenges in the form of disenchanted laypeople and continuing legal woes. Law said Friday night that he will be able to restore his moral authority ''only with God's help.'' He faces a tough summer of legal proceedings likely to produce more documents about the church's handling of abusive priests in Boston and likely to lead to the public release and scrutiny of depositions of Law and his former aides.

All the bishops face the challenge of implementing the new policy. They must report any allegation of abuse to law enforcement. But they also plan to evaluate allegations themselves, via review boards dominated by laypeople, and it is the findings of those boards that will lead to the removal of priests who have abused minors. In Boston and other dioceses, the impact is likely to be minimal because those steps have already been taken - across the country 250 abusive priests have lost their jobs just this year.

''I don't expect the numbers will be too high, because by now we've pretty much ferreted out most of these guys,'' said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which represents priests across the nation. ''Where I have a problem is that it's all on the priests. The bishops now need to assume responsibility for what they did or didn't do.''

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops' conference, acknowledged a need to further explore the issue of holding accountable bishops who fail to remove abusive priests from ministry.

''We decided to continue this conversation about accountability,'' he said. ''Until we can develop ways of being more accountable to our people and more accountable to each other, there will still be an unanswered issue that plagues this particular moment in the church.''

The bishops will face new public scrutiny of their past and present handling of abuse cases.

A national commission, chaired by Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, is to produce the first study describing the number of abusive priests in the church and the number of victims. Keating made it clear on Friday that he is angry about the crisis and will use the commission to demand that his church change. In addition, a new national office is to issue annual public reports on the compliance of dioceses with the new policy requirements.

''All of the bishops have really a new consciousness,'' said Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Malone of Boston. ''I truly believe there never was any ill will in any of these situations, but there's a new consciousness on the part of all of us about what needs to happen from now on. And it was very clear. And the lay faithful in the church will very much hold us to that standard as well.''

Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, said he has been meeting with hundreds of young people about the crisis, and they will keep him accountable.

''They're making me walk the walk already,'' he said. ''They're speaking out. I have had days of listening before I came here and they said what they wanted to say. I think we need more of that.''

Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet said he and his fellow bishops are committed to making good on their promises.

''Our heads are bowed, but I think we're also very firm in our conviction that we're going to keep going,'' he said. ''We're going to do what we're supposed to do.''

Even as the bishops proceed voluntarily to implement the policy, the US Conference of Bishops will forward it to the Vatican, seeking to have Pope John Paul II make it mandatory for all 194 dioceses in the country. Some Vatican officials have expressed concern about elements of the policy, but Gregory said he is optimistic that the Vatican will approve the document because ''the Holy See is very much aware of the severity of this crisis.''

The bishops' policy embraced a broad definition of sexual abuse - one already in use by the Canadian Conference of Bishops - that defines sexual abuse as ''contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult.''

Such interactions could include, for example, a priest watching pornography with a minor, one bishop said.

Church observers agreed that the clergy sexual abuse crisis will not end as a result of the Dallas meeting, but that it will enter a new phase, as the public watches to see whether the bishops succeed in keeping their promises to change the church's practices.

''It closes the first chapter of this dirty story about sexual abuse of minors,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. ''Now the bishops have to go home and implement it. They have to convince the victims that they're serious, that they're not just talking about it, not just asking for forgiveness, but that they're actually going to implement these policies.''

Reese and other authors, academics, and theologians said at stake is not only the credibility of bishops from Boston to Baton Rouge, but nothing less than the future of the US Catholic Church.

''They have to restore their credibility,'' Reese said. ''And this is not going to do it alone. I think what they're going to have to do is go home and visit their parishes and listen to their laity, and do a lot more listening than talking for the next couple of years. To win back the support of the laity, they need to bring the same kind of transparency, accountability, and lay involvement to other areas of church decision-making, not just in this area.''

Garry Wills, an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University who writes frequently about church issues, said the remarkable Dallas conference demonstrated that US prelates were ''scared'' into taking an important first step in an attempt to put the crisis behind them. He predicted that the uprisising of laypeople seeking a greater role in the church will continue, as will the anger at bishops themselves.

''I don't think this will end anything, but this will take us to another stage,'' Wills said. ''There is a kind of activism arising, which, even though it's a minority, it's a minority that is intense. Those people will continue to say that this is insufficient. This does not address the problem of accountability in the hierarchy. The question will keep coming up: You're ready to dismiss priests pretty fast but bishops are still untouchable. I don't think that that will be considered accountability.''

Throughout the Dallas meeting, bishops accustomed to deferential treatment from parishioners who once lined up to kiss their rings were buffeted with unusually tough talk from protesters and lay professionals who said their cavalier attitude toward priests who attack children made them complicit in a scandal that they were too late to acknowledge.

Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame history professor, delivered perhaps the conference's most remarkably frank address, rendering a blistering critique and giving the bishops some blunt talk from the people in the pews.

''They are saying that the failures of the hierarchy extend to our arrogation of unchecked authority over finances and legal strategies, extending to coverups and fiscal malfeasance,'' he said. ''They are saying that some members of the hierarchy, including those at the center of the storm, remain unrepentant and even defiant, blaming the culture, the media, or their ecclesial opponents for the disgrace that has been visited upon them.''

The talk outside the conference hall was equally tough as victims of clergy sexual abuse and their families said they will not allow church leaders to congratulate themselves for adopting a policy that removes any priest who has ever abused any child from the ministry. They said they will be watching closely to see how the bishops proceed.

''The question is where Catholics go from here,'' said Peter Isely, a victim of clergy sexual abuse from Wisconsin. ''Catholics can't let go of this issue. They're going to have to find a way to solve this problem and do it on their own if they have to.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at and Thomas Farragher can be reached at Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2002.
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