The Catholic Church Confronts Its Future

By James E. Post
National Catholic Reporter
February 14, 2003

Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation as archbishop of Boston and the Vatican's official ap-proval of the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons" marks the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another, in the unfolding story of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Throughout the United States and the world, the wounds of the Catholic church must heal on many levels. Relationships among bishops and the priests, survivors and laity will take time and special efforts to repair. In particular, reconciliation between the Catholic church hierarchy and survivors of clergy sexual abuse will require that justice be done through the fair settlement of legal cases. It will also require the hierarchy's sustained commitment to education programs, therapy for victims and their families, and dialogue.

Catholic leaders -- clergy and lay -- with whom I have spoken foresee a decade or more of hard work to reestablish stable relationships among priests, survivors, laity and bishops. In Boston alone, the hundreds of lawsuits are likely to take upwards of five years to resolve, even under the most optimistic scenarios. Throughout the United States, church attendance, regular financial support and Catholic philanthropy are all down now -- in some dioceses, by 20 percent or more.

Bringing those levels up by regaining trust will take more than well-written policies and promises. It will take action. Bishops, priests, and laity must define a new set of terms about how Catholics will participate in, and actively support, their church.

There are several practical steps that bishops and laity should take to begin the process of healing, reconciliation and reunification:

Create advisory boards that aren't just for show. Existing governance structures in each diocese -- including pastoral councils, finance councils and advisory boards -- need to be reinvigorated or reconstructed. Right now, a typical diocese's finance committee is run by lay people who are likely to view their appointments as honorary.

Instead of mild, deferential laity who value these honorary appointments, lay boards must be populated with tough-minded, independent thinking Catholics who will "speak truth to power," telling bishops what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear, particularly regarding budgets, administration, financial planning and personnel. Each person serving on a lay board is a steward for the interests of all Catholics and must resist succumbing to the insidious effects of "insider" status and privilege.

Let the sun shine in. Secrecy and authoritarianism created the conditions in which sexual abuse could flourish within the church. Currently, some dioceses have newly created review boards meant to evaluate sexual abuse allegations. These boards are made up of lay people whose names have not been revealed.

Such "secret" review boards are an unacceptable contradiction in terms. Bishops must not undermine their stated commitment to openness by resorting to concealment. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Sunlight and the open participation of the laity are the only ways to cleanse and purify the church.

Don't allow wiggle room. Rhetorical commitment is not sufficient. There must be vigorous definition and implementation of child protection policies beyond the norms approved by the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. For instance, bishops can go beyond the final revised norms in terms of rolling back the 10-year statute of limitations and making sure that the influence of lay review boards is not diminished. The bishops also must not slow proceedings down deliberately, underfund policies and procedures, or appoint weak personnel for implementation.

Listen to those who've been wounded. Bishops must learn to bring people together, to listen as well as speak, and to respect the anger, hurt and sense of betrayal felt by millions of decent Catholics.

Overrule backsliders. Local parishes need strong lay involvement in parish councils, finance councils, and committees that oversee clerical and lay personnel, child protection policies and pastoral activities. Bishops need to press sincerely and unequivocally for these forms of lay influence, and they must overrule pastors who resist it. In particular, safe parish programs must be adequately funded and competently staffed.

Find the money, even if it hurts. Fulfilling all of these commitments -- therapy for victims, staff for safe parish programs, tough advisory panels and, yes, lawsuit payouts -- will cost money. In some dioceses, there may be more insurance money than is currently thought. Where there are shortfalls, however, the church might need to make the painful, but necessary, sacrifice of mortgaging its extensive properties.

Months ago, when we saw donations dropping in Boston, Voice of the Faithful set up the Voice of Compassion-Boston Fund. This fund was intended to send tens of thousands of dollars in diverted donations back to the same Catholic charities the Boston diocese supports, but through a system that tracks exactly where the money goes, modeling the concepts of accountability and transparency. As of this writing, however, the archdiocese of Boston has rejected our first quarter donation; but its semi-independent agency, Catholic Charities, has accepted it. We envision the Voice of Compassion-Boston Fund as a template for the creation of similar funds throughout the United States and we believe that exerting moral and financial pressure around financial issues will ultimately make dioceses more accountable and transparent.

When people tell me a 2,000-year-old church can't change, my response is that the church has always adapted to changing conditions. If the church were truly incapable of change, it would still be insisting that the Earth revolves around the sun. It would still be condoning slavery and condemning Jews. From justice for Jews, to teachings on slavery, to the concept of limbo -- the church does know how to adapt to changing cultural conditions. I see no reason why principles of transparency can't be incorporated into the living church. This is not about doctrine. It's about the human administration of the institution. The church's centuries-long survival demonstrates that it can adapt. It must do so again now.

James E. Post is president of Voice of the Faithful in Boston, Mass.


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