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Spotlight Report

  E.J. Dionne Jr.  

Bishops' credibility gap


AS IF THEY needed any reminding, America's Catholic bishops were given an excellent sense of what they are up against when The Wall Street Journal published the findings of a poll measuring the public's lack of confidence in major institutions.

The poll, conducted with NBC News, appeared Thursday as bishops opened their Dallas meeting on the pedophilia scandal. The roster of mistrust included corporate executives, brokerage firms, pharmaceutical companies, the oil industry - and the Roman Catholic Church.

Read that list and weep. At moments of crisis and confusion, the church is supposed to provide a moral anchor. It's not supposed to add to the problem.

At least the bishops did not add to their problems. They finally learned that admitting a problem everybody knows you have is far better than denial, that a straightforward apology always beats the oily rationalization.

There was not a hint of that passive-offensive ''mistakes were made'' language in Bishop Wilton Gregory's powerful act of contrition to American Catholics. ''We are the ones'' was his refrain, and he deployed this litany mercilessly.

''We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require it,'' he declared. ''We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.''

And the bishops went one better, inviting victims of priestly abuse to tell their horrific stories in a necessary act of public shaming. For the bishops it was a salutary moment of Catholic guilt. Neither cynicism nor anger should blind critics to the importance of this step. Nothing good could happen until it was taken.

Some in the church would like to hope that this is it, that powerful gestures and a promise never to allow a priestly abuser to exercise public responsibility again will allow - in that peculiar American political phrase - a return to normalcy.

But Peggy Steinfels, one of the lay Catholic intellectuals who addressed the bishops with honesty and good sense, explained why this is not to be. ''Whatever the causes of the scandal,'' she declared, ''the fact is that the dam has broken. A reservoir of trust among Catholics has run dry. This scandal has brought home to lay people how essentially powerless they are to affect the outcome.''

In fact, the scandal has aggravated deep divisions among Catholics themselves, as Steinfels underscored simply by listing the sometimes contradictory explanations that the faithful have offered for why this happened. They included ''celibacy; homosexuality; emotional and sexual maturity; the permissive '60s; the repressive '50s; dissidents; lack of priests; lack of accountability; a clerical club protecting its own; the loss of collegiality.'' These issues are in the open now, and no command - from right or left, from Dallas or Rome - will silence the debate each requires.

Already, advocates of ''zero tolerance'' are arguing it is not enough to say that some abusers will be able to stay in the priesthood even if they cannot serve in public. Especially among the victims, there is a strong sentiment that all who abused, no matter when or how often, should be removed from the priesthood.

At the same time, at parishes scattered around the country there are defenses of particular priests who may have abused once but have been exemplary leaders since. Why, these parishioners ask, should they be deprived of pastors whom they admire and who have repented?

Note that each of these seemingly contradictory arguments reflects the mistrust of church leaders that Steinfels evoked. In the first instance, the church's failure to act forcefully enough when this scandal erupted in the 1980s leads its critics to insist that no bishop be allowed any loopholes now. Absolute failure demands absolute rules.

In the second instance, parishioners are questioning their bishop's right to determine who will lead a particular parish. This is a fundamental challenge to authority that could lead to a call for greater influence by the rank-and-file over the most basic decisions.

The Dallas meeting provided a form of collective accountability, and that was useful. So was the creation of a lay commission to look into what went wrong and how it should be put right - provided the commission is broadly representative and genuinely free to act.

But as yet there has been no accountability on the part of individual bishops. That will have to come before the reservoir of trust can be replenished.

E.J. Dionne a syndicated columnist.

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2002.
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