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Spotlight Report

Debating the limits of forgiveness

Bishops consider repentant abusers

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/15/2002

WASHINGTON - In the final moments of this week's debate among Catholic bishops over how to deal with sexually abusive priests, a bishop from Indiana rose in a last-ditch defense of second chances.

Didn't Jesus take in Peter, who had denied him? And didn't Paul, who once railed against Christianity, become the church's first great evangelist? So why shouldn't a priest who made a single mistake decades ago and has since sincerely repented and changed be given another chance?

As the bishops departed from Washington yesterday upon the conclusion of their semiannual meeting, a question still hung in the air: How does a faith that emphasizes forgiveness make peace with an unforgiving policy on abusive priests?

''We are much further along in bringing a permanent conclusion to this terrible, painful scandal, but we still have discussions around many issues ... most of all the whole question of forgiveness,'' said Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who played a major role this week as a champion of the bishops' revised child protection policy.

George was also the most prominent cleric to argue that the current crisis in the church was caused by too many bishops giving too many abusive priests another chance, only to have the priests abuse again. He is alert to both the hazards and necessity of forgiveness. This is, he says, a conundrum it will take time for the church to work through.

''We are not in a position right now to demand that victims forgive ... and nor are we in the position of saying that because a priest has been forgiven and has been penitent, therefore there should be no further consequences,'' George said. ''There is no such thing as a private sin - all sin is public and has public consequences in wounding the body of Christ and in destroying relationships - even after the sin has been forgiven.''

Throughout this week's policy debate recurred a theological debate.

''How do we deal with the priest who has experienced a deep conversion, in a way that will not have him in public ministry ... but will in some ways allow ... the living out, quietly and prayerfully, of his priestly ministry?'' asked Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston.

But underlying the theological debate is a practical question: What is the church to do with the estimated 300 priests who have been ousted from public ministry this year because they once abused a minor?

''What's going to happen to these guys? Who knows?'' asked the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

Some ousted priests are living with parents or friends or in convents or monasteries as they try to figure out how to earn a living and what to do with their time, he said. ''I don't even know how much thinking is being done about this.''

A handful of prelates - including Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind. - suggested that, in some cases, there should be a chance for a rehabilitated priest to work in a parish.

''Are there any provisions for anyone who could ever turn around and show a conversion and rehabilitation?'' Gettelfinger asked. Told the answer was no, Gettelfinger said he would have to vote against the abuse policy.

But theologians and bishops generally agreed with George in saying that forgiveness doesn't mean that the church must consider restoring offending priests to ministry.

''There is a naive Christian view that forgiveness means wiping away all punishment, but in classic Catholic moral theology, you have to balance forgiveness and justice,'' said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the Boston College theology department. ''You can forgive someone and accept them as a member of your community, without believing that you also need to give them access to positions that will allow them to harm people again. ''

The issue of forgiveness has been raised before, as the bishops moved toward a consensus on how to punish abusing priests. In August, leaders of the nation's more than 300 religious orders insisted that some abusers can repent or be cured, and they refused to permanently expel molesters. The bishop's policy applies to priests in religious orders.

In April, Pope John Paul II reminded the cardinals of the United States that a church that promotes the virtue of reconciliation must allow for the possibility that abusive priests can change.

''We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change,'' John Paul said.

The whole debate has little resonance for many victim and lay advocacy groups, which argue that the bishops should long ago have ousted abusive priests and turned them over to police.

''Of course there are opportunities for forgiveness, and I hope and trust there could be a possibility for some of these guys to have conversions,'' said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''But there can't be second chances, because it places children at risk.''

The bishops said that many of the cases now being publicized are so old that they can't be prosecuted in civil courts, so the church is the only path to punishment. And, they said, ordination is a permanent state that should not be overturned, except in the most extreme circumstances.

''The connection between a bishop and his priests is permanent, no matter what their situation,'' George said. ''I have priests in prison. I am still their bishop, and I try to reach out to them.''

But, the bishops said, remaining in the priesthood does not mean remaining on the job in any conventional sense. It is the question of what it means to be a priest without serving in ministry that they now must sort out.

''No one has a right to be a public minister of the church,'' said Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill. ''We feel as bishops that a priest or deacon who has committed this violation has forfeited that call to be in public ministry.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/15/2002.
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