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  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Bishops' challenge


THE CATHOLIC CHURCH in the United States comprises 194 autonomous dioceses and archdioceses answerable only to the Vatican. Sexual abuse of young people by priests is a national disgrace that ought to be fought with a unified program of detection and prevention. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops needs to devise national guidelines to assure American Catholics that their children will be safe in the church.

In June 1992, the bishops approved "Five Principles to Follow in Dealing with Accusations of Child Abuse," one of which is that with sufficient evidence, an alleged offender should be removed from ministerial duties. The Boston Archdiocese did not put this fully into effect until January of this year. Other dioceses have followed suit, but many have customarily sent priest-abusers back to the parishes in the past. To prevent recurrences of abuse, the bishops need to affirm their 1992 standard so that dioceses do not revert to the looser practice once the Boston scandal fades.

Another of the five principles provides that dioceses "comply with the obligations of civil law as regards to reporting an incident." All states ought to include members of the clergy on their list of mandatory reporters of suspected abuse, but many do not. The bishops ought to consider whether clergy and other church workers have a moral obligation to report such abuse even if they are not required to do so by law.

A position paper drafted by two committees of the US Bishops Conference urged parishes to develop programs to teach people about sexual abuse issues. The bishops ought to examine whether dioceses are encouraging parishes to implement these programs and whether Catholic schools are offering preventive programs for their students.

The bishops have been considering the issue of sexual abuse since the first widely publicized scandal in 1984 involving a small Louisiana diocese. The furor over Cardinal Bernard Law's handling of the Geoghan case, however, has brought new national prominence to the issue and nationwide shame on the church. New, tougher guidelines would resonate throughout the church.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Bellevue, Ill., president of the Bishops Conference, last month acknowledged the harm done to the church by the scandal. He affirmed by phone last week that the bishop in charge of each diocese is answerable only to the Vatican.

The bishops won't get much help there. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Pope John Paul's spokesman, suggested to a New York Times reporter that the problem with much of the abuse is homosexuality in the priesthood. The issue, however, is not sexual orientation but protection of youngsters of either sex from the small minority of clerics who are sexually attracted to them.

Navarro-Valls also said: "We've very well aware of the dimension and implications of the problem. . . . They're working on it there," referring to the United States. This statement appears to give the bishops leeway to act. A 50-person administrative committee will be meeting this week to plan the annual bishops meeting in June. They need to get serious about coordinating policies that protect children from abuse and the church from complicity in evil.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 3/11/2002.
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