From the Editor's Desk

By Tom Roberts
National Catholic Reporter
May 16, 2003

It is a tough time to be a priest in the United States. As Fr. Robert J. Silva, president of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests' Councils, put it in a recent talk, "The startling and horrible outbreak of this scourge of sexual abuse that exploded into the headlines in January of 2001 left the priests of this country horrified and stunned. There were three things that were incomprehensible. They were the crime itself, the large numbers of priests involved and the way in which bishops had been handling such cases."

The best priests I know will admit at some point in conversation that it is tough being a priest, that they can't help feeling that people are suspicious of them, especially those who don't know them. What once guaranteed instant respect now elicits skepticism and mistrust.

More than 200 priests gathered this week in Kansas City, Mo., for the 35th anniversary meeting of the National Federation of Priests Councils, the first since the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded anew in Boston last year.

The program reflected the headlines as well as the internal concerns of a priesthood that is declining in numbers and advancing in age. Workshops were held on Human Sexuality and the Contemporary Church; Income Tax Issues for Priests; Priestly Image in a Postmodern Age, among others.

In his address, Silva, who was re-elected to a three-year term, emphasized three problem areas that he considers most important to the life of priests: relationship between bishops and priests; a continuing concern about the rights of priest-perpetrators and priests in general; and the connection between the community of priests and the "one strike and you're out policy."

"Many priests felt that the bishops simply abandoned them and enacted policies that placed priests in a most vulnerable position. Instead of the bishop being an advocate for the priest in his troubles, in the perception of many priests he became an adversary. Many priests' immediate reaction was that they could not trust their bishop."

Silva has traveled widely in the last year to speak to priests, often at the invitation of bishops. He said he hears two common quotes from priests: "If I go in to see the bishop, I will make sure I have my attorney with me"; and "The bishops just threw us to the dogs." In truth, as Silva points out, the situation is far more complex, but that fact doesn't quickly eliminate the feeling among priests of betrayal.

That feeling of betrayal, of course, has a direct bearing on two other areas of concern. To further complicate matters, there are areas that are difficult to address without raising suspicion that one is insensitive to the victims. As someone asked me during a talk I gave recently when the topic of concern for priests' rights came up: "Shouldn't they all just be handed over to civil authorities?"

Again, it isn't as simple as it might appear. Most of the abuse happened decades ago. Priests who have been "credibly accused" may never be subjected to a criminal process, and in many instances whether they are subjected to a civil process depends on a host of variables, not least of which is whether a given diocese can be made to hand over documents relating to the cases.

How to get beyond this awful moment? In a conversation over breakfast, Silva said he believes that priests and bishops throughout the country really need to engage in a structured dialogue if trust and confidence is ever going to be restored.

Further, he believes, as he said in his talk, that "bishops and curial officials, canonists, civil lawyers and judges must continue to argue" the issues of priests' rights and due process for the accused "in such a way that we progress in our understandings of rights. Victims of abuse are owed such deliberation and clarification. Perpetrators are owed the same. Priests are owed the same."

Finally, and perhaps the most daunting task, said Silva, is that the church has to find a way to balance its obligations to be pastoral with the demands civil law is now placing on it. "We are not and cannot experience ourselves as a corporation or business institution. We are church."

Unfortunately, said Silva, the clash between church law and civil law makes that wish extremely difficult if not impossible to realize. It is hard to imagine holding the competing forces in balance: to finally admit the mistakes and name the accused priests while maintaining due process within the church and at the same time satisfy the demands of civil law.

"How do civil law and ecclesiastical law interface?" he asked. "I would hope that some of our Catholic law schools could begin to investigate some of this at least at the theoretical level," he said.

It is a tough time to be a priest, but one is braced a bit by the realization that through the jarring revelations of the last year most priests were not indicted or accused, but remained on the job, faithful in all of their diverse gifts and foibles, utterly human at the heart of a sacred enterprise.


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