Reform Efforts Called Lacking

By Brandon Bailey
Mercury News
Downloaded May 31, 2003

Nearly a year after a national sex abuse scandal prompted Roman Catholic bishops to promise a new era of sensitivity and accountability, several experts meeting at Santa Clara University warned Friday that church leaders are still struggling to regain their credibility on the abuse issue and other matters.

Despite new programs and policies announced after U.S. bishops met in Dallas last June, the church leaders' response is inadequate, said David Clohessy, leader of a national victims' advocacy group, and Richard Sipe, a former monk and mental health counselor who has written extensively about sexuality and the clergy.

Other speakers gave the church more credit. A psychologist and sexual assault victim who serves on a church review board in Los Angeles cited what she called a "paradigm shift" that she believes will allow bishops to protect children and weed out predatory priests.

But a professor of Christian ethics warned that some church leaders are so tainted by the sex abuse scandal that they have lost credibility on other moral issues.

As an example, the professor, William Spohn of Santa Clara University, said a major statement opposing a war with Iraq was overshadowed last fall by the fact that it was delivered by Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who later resigned amid criticism that he covered up abuse problems in his diocese.

"It's sort of like listening to Kenneth Lay give a lecture on business ethics," said Spohn, referring to the former chairman of Enron.

Spohn added in an interview that, while most bishops want to help victims of sexual abuse, they may also have an instinctive tendency to protect their priests and their church against scandal. He said bishops may also be influenced by insurance defense lawyers, who work for the insurance carriers who must pay for settlements awarded to victims who file lawsuits.

The experts were at a symposium organized by Santa Clara University psychology Professor Thomas Plante, who invited them to submit chapters for a book titled "Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church." Plante, who has treated priests with sexual problems and serves on several church advisory panels, edited an earlier book on the subject that was published in 1999.

Several chapters in the book are likely to take a critical look at the church.

Clohessy, as national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, has accused U.S. church leaders of not following through on their public promises as they have fought new legislation and lawsuits aimed at holding the church accountable for past abuse.

Sipe, who called the abuse scandal "monumental," nonetheless argued that it is only a symptom of the church's failure to deal with a host of issues involving celibacy and sexuality, including contraception, homosexuality and premarital sex.

Those issues "will need to be addressed before the bishops can regain any credibility," Sipe said.

But another speaker, Los Angeles psychologist Nanette de Fuentes, said she believes the scandal has made it easier for bishops who want to address the problem. Under policies adopted last year, bishops have created new diocesan offices to assist victims and named outside review boards to examine complaints against priests.

"Those bishops who want to be responsible in this area, they now feel they have more power to implement things they have been wanting to do," she said. "And those who have been in denial, I think they are forced out of denial."

De Fuentes said most of the new review boards in California are still sorting out questions about their role. But she agreed with Plante, who said the creation of the boards demonstrates "a commitment to do the right thing."

Some bishops have moved more quickly to implement reforms than others, Plante added. "Rome wasn't built in a day."


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