Bishops Haven't Learned Lessons

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun-Times
June 6, 2003

John Allen, the gifted Rome bureau chief of the National Catholic Reporter, recently observed that current Vatican distaste for the United States is based on the Iraqi war and the Calvinism of American culture. The first criticism is probably valid--especially since Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that the weapons of mass destruction explanation was the result of a bureaucratic decision. Hence, apparently, it was not truth.

As proof of American Catholic Calvinism, Allen's contacts in the Curia point to the "zero tolerance" policy toward child abusers. Should not, they argue, something done only once and long ago win Christian forgiveness?

The question illustrates once again just how clueless the Curia is about this country. The issue is not the punishment of priests or their forgiveness. The issue is the protection of children and young people. American lay folk insist on zero tolerance because they don't trust their bishops (appointed by the Curia) to protect children. Give a bishop a chance to reassign an abuser, American Catholics have come to believe, and many will be back at the same old game of worrying more about the priest than about children.

It's been a year since the Dallas meeting, and the furor about abuse seems to have disappeared off the front pages and out of the television evening news. It would appear that some bishops have decided that the problem has been solved, and they are back to business as usual. In many dioceses, priests are still making the decisions about whether brother priests should be charged to the independent review board and reported to the civil authorities. If there is one lesson that has been learned from the scandals of the last 20 years it is that few priests--especially priests on the chancery staff--can make negative decisions about friends or classmates.

I hasten to add that as far as I know these things are not happening in either of the two dioceses in which I work, Chicago and Tucson.

It was recently announced by Kathleen McChesney, director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, that the Gavin Group, made up of former FBI agents, will monitor the compliance of American dioceses with the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which the bishops established a year ago. But that was then, and now is now, and many bishops wonder who gave McChesney (formerly No. 3 at the FBI) authority to hire anyone--much less former federal gumshoes--to check up on bishops. Bishops are responsible only to the Vatican and to no one else. One can hardly imagine his imperial eminence in New York permitting ex-FBI men to monitor what he's doing.

It is not unlikely that the upcoming bishops' meeting in St. Louis will be an occasion for muttering against this new, and from the point of many bishops, utterly unacceptable interference in their decisions. The consequences could be that McChesney would find herself out of a job, the Gavin Group would be without a contract, and the National Review Board, which is supposed to monitor the implementation of the Dallas Charter, would lose its mandate.

Would the hierarchy really try such a coup in the present climate? I hear rumors that some of its leaders want that to happen. Do they realize how much their already thin credibility would suffer if they try to recant the Dallas Charter? Do they really believe that the worst is over? Do they think they can in effect repeal the Dallas Charter and get away with it?

The answer for some of them, I very much fear, is yes.

In explaining the behavior of some bishops, it is useful to remember how much of the variance can be accounted for by ignorance and stupidity, usually hiding under the protection of arrogance. Transparency, responsiveness, honesty, intelligence are not virtues that come easily to the kind of men that Rome sends to the United States these days (again, with some happy exceptions).

What will blast them out of their complacency, their self-satisfaction, their arrogance? Only, one very much fears, when the civil authorities finally get around to indicting some of them.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.