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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Compromised bishops


BISHOP WILTON D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, tried Monday to move beyond the sexual abuse scandal to other matters of great concern to the Catholic Church in the United States. But he and the other bishops will find it difficult to do so until the church acts against bishops who allowed sexual abuse to go unreported and unpunished.

Gregory, in his address to the bishops' semiannual meeting, made a passing reference to ''the mismanagement of those violations by some church leaders.'' Then he condemned the ''false prophets'' - those who support women's ordination and other major changes in Catholic practice.

The critics have gained credibility precisely because, as Gregory noted, ''we have experienced serious fractures between bishops and the faithful as well as between bishops and priests.'' The bishops' meeting in Dallas in June, while it proposed tough sanctions against sexual abuse, put off discussions of remedies for this loss of trust. That was left to a special committee of bishops, which is due to report today.

News reports suggest that the committee will propose that a regional archbishop and the papal nuncio must be told if a bishop is accused of sexual abuse. But there was no word on what, if anything, will be done to a bishop who covers up sexual abuse that was committed by another cleric.

The basic policy against sexual abuse, though weakened after negotiations with the Vatican, still gives bishops ample authority to prevent abuse and remove abusers from active ministry. But this policy can be only as strong as the people who implement it. And bishops who covered up sexual abuse, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, still hold positions of responsibility.

Gregory in his speech sought to refocus the attention of bishops on the plight of Mexican immigrants, a renewed commitment to fight poverty, and the impact of Roe v. Wade. Gregory also asked Law to address the bishops on the moral consequences of a US war against Iraq. These are matters of vital importance, but the response of the conference is compromised by its inability to deal with the failings of its members.

The bishops' standard rejoinder is that within the church, individual bishops are ultimately answerable only to Pope John Paul II. This is true, but talk of ''false prophets'' makes it harder for the Vatican to grasp that the real damage to the church was done not by the critics but by sexual abusers in the priesthood and their enablers in the hierarchy.

We on this page have called for Law's resignation. New leadership in Boston and in other dioceses torn by the scandal would refocus the Catholic Church in the United States on its spiritual and social mission.

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 11/13/2002.
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