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  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Bishops' partial response


THE CATHOLIC bishops of the United States went far last week to resolve one aspect of the sexual abuse crisis their church faces. They devised a structure of oversight, supervision, and monitoring that should, if implemented effectively, prevent future cases of abuse by priests and end the clerical careers of any who have had sexual contact with young people.

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This scandal, however, involves power as well as sex. The bishops themselves escaped formal censure even though some of them, notably Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, used their authority to protect the abusers.

The bishops did lower the boom on priest-abusers, even those guilty of a single offense in the distant past. By a vote of 239-13, they approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This commits them to report offenders to the civil authorities and establishes a system of oversight boards, with strong lay representation, at the diocesan, regional, and national levels, to make sure that individual cases of abuse are handled properly and that overall policies are sound.

To have the force of church law, Vatican approval is required for key points. In the short-term, the bishops' overwhelming vote, the intense public attention to this issue, and the criticism that bishops received from victims of sexual abuse ought to encourage all US dioceses to put the policies into effect.

Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, took action immediately by naming Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to head a national review board, which will monitor the performance of dioceses. Continuing involvement of independent lay people like Keating is essential at all levels to make sure that the traditional bond between bishops and priests does not result in a weakening of protections against abuse.

The bishops did agree that a committee of the conference will look into their involvement in the scandals and report back in November. It is difficult to imagine this internal body coming out with strong recommendations for sanctions against individual bishops. Keating's board is empowered to undertake a study of the ''causes and context'' of the crisis. It should not shy away from placing individual blame, where appropriate.

Cardinal Law, at the Dallas conference, said he was pleased with the vote, and indicated that he will stay as archbishop of Boston - ''that's where I should be.'' He apologized to his fellow bishops in private for his role in the scandal, but we on this page continue to believe that his resignation is the only proper response to his long refusal to put the welfare of children ahead of the protection of priests.

The adoption of the charter offers a new start for the Catholic Church in the United States in its struggles with the sexual abuse scandal. A similar opportunity for the Boston archdiocese will only come with new leadership.

This story ran on page E6 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2002.
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