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  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Restoring trust in bishops


GROUPS representing survivors of sexual abuse want the Catholic bishops meeting in Dallas to impose sanctions not only against offending priests, but against bishops who might shield abusers in the future. It appears unlikely that the survivors will get their wish.

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That outcome would be unfortunate for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, which urgently needs a tough, binding, nationwide policy against both the act and the coverup of abuse to restore the trust of the laity in priests and bishops.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops cannot discipline its own members, Coadjutor Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas said yesterday, because that is the responsibility of the pope. The bishops are engaged in a delicate dance with the Vatican over how strong to appear in this scandal. Some in Rome think the scandal is being driven by the media, but Galante, who is a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, and other bishops had frequent - if occasionally strained - praise for news coverage of the scandal.

The committee has recommended, for the first time, that policies against abuse be binding on all dioceses. Its draft policy document has prompted scores of suggested amendments from bishops, but Galante said these will not weaken it, adding that the changes ultimately adopted will make the policy statement ''stronger - no wiggle room.''

Galante was confident that the bishops would establish an oversight office at the national level, operating under the authority of canon law, to monitor the policies of individual dioceses. He held out the prospect of a supervisory role for archbishops, who have loose jurisdiction over several dioceses in a province.

Given the sorry record of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and several other archbishops on abuse cases in their own archdioceses, it's hard to see them warming to the task of policing fellow bishops. Something stronger is needed to reassure the laity that the bishops face sanctions if they allow abusive priests to go unpunished.

''It's a delicate area,'' Galante said. ''One doesn't dictate to the pope.'' But the bishops should be willing to make a polite suggestion to Pope John Paul II that he dismiss any bishop involved in future coverups. This proposal could take the form of a nonbinding resolution, apart from the policy statement.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the bishops conference, said yesterday that ''what we are facing is not a breakdown of belief, but a rupture in our relationship as bishops with the faithful.'' When they approve their policy statement today, the bishops will declare themselves in favor of ''zero tolerance'' for any priest who abuses a child in the future. To restore the trust of their people, they ought to urge the pope to be equally tough on any bishop who protects the abuser.

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2002.
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