Scandal Affecting Church's Credibility
Sex Abuse Detracts from Other Issues

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle
June 16, 2003


For William Spohn, the most troubling moment in the child-molestation crisis in the Roman Catholic Church had nothing to do with sex.

It occurred at the Catholic bishops' regular gathering in Washington in November, where the assembled prelates drafted a compromise version of a new "zero-tolerance" policy tentatively adopted at a special meeting one year ago in Dallas.

The other big news coming from the November meeting was the bishops' tough critique opposing President Bush's use of "pre-emptive war" against Iraq.

But as it turned out, the chairman of the bishops' committee on war and peace was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, the man at the center of the scandal over recalcitrant bishops who failed to crack down on known pedophile priests.

Law resigned a month later, but at that moment in Washington, he was the man who delivered the church's moral challenge to President Bush.

"That overshadowed their message on Iraq," said Spohn, director of the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education at Santa Clara University.

"My biggest fear is that they have lost public acceptance and credibility," Spohn said. "It's going to be a long time until they have credibility, and I think that's a shame."


Spohn is one of many experts who predict the molestation scandal could have ramifications far beyond the issues of child sexual abuse and ecclesiastical oversight.

Some believe the crisis is already reshaping the separation of church and state in the United States.

Prosecutors across the country have demanded, and in many cases received, once-confidential church personnel files containing decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct by priests.

Meanwhile, California and other states have passed controversial laws tossing out the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.

Over the past five years, at least 20 Roman Catholic priests in the Bay Area have been criminally charged with sexually abusing minors.

Some of the most recent charges came after San Francisco Archbishop William Levada provided law enforcement officials in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties with lists of priests who were accused in incidents dating back to the 1960s but were never turned over to the district attorney for prosecution.

In the current edition of Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocese's weekly newspaper, Levada said accused priests who are not "true pedophiles" have been shocked by his action.

"For priests who, when they were young, may have violated this trust and repented, and through therapy or grace have moved on, it is very difficult for them to see that the ministry which has been the focus of their lives is no longer possible," Levada said.

While some applaud the prosecutions, other church leaders -- especially those at the Vatican -- worry that U.S. bishops are tossing priests to the wolves to stave off a media-fueled feeding frenzy.

"There is a widely held view that this is an anti-church campaign," said John Allen, who covers the Vatican for National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper.

"How did the story of sexual abuse become a Catholic story?" Allen asked. "What about schools, hospitals, the Boy Scouts? How did the problems of the Catholic church end up on the front page of the New York Times 41 days in a row? Those are difficult questions to answer."


The Rev. Robert Silva, director of the National Federation of Priests Councils, compared the government's prosecution of priests with its treatment of Arab and Middle Eastern immigrants in the post-Sept. 11 "war on terrorism."

"There is a mood in the country now that you can deny some people's rights in the name of others' rights," Silva said. "I have a great deal of sympathy for victims, but we have to also protect the rights of priests."

Of course, the organized victims of priestly molestation have different views.

David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, worries about "premature complacency" -- once the media spotlight is gone, the bishops will go back to their old ways.

"Years ago," he said, "the one phrase victims just loathed to hear was 'Just get over it.' These days the phrase the victims loathe hearing is 'Thank goodness that mess was all cleaned up.' We need to focus on how the bishops are behaving."

All Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States are supposed to have investigative review boards run by lay people and empowered to look into allegations of sexual abuse of minors.

The nation's 195 dioceses are now being surveyed by the church's National Review Board to see whether they are complying with the new guidelines on reporting abuse.

On Saturday, a spokesman for former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, the head of the board, told the Los Angeles Times that Keating would resign his post.

The decision followed a controversy that began last week when Keating compared unnamed bishops who had resisted his efforts with "La Cosa Nostra." Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has been accused of transferring known pedophile priests from parish to parish, had called Keating's comments "off the wall."

Keating's departure could bolster critics who have questioned whether the bishops will conduct an honest investigation of the scandal.

The bishops are to meet later this week in St. Louis, where most of their deliberations will be conducted behind closed doors.


Critics say too many bishops are not living up to promises made a year ago in Dallas.

"The problems review boards face are the same problems journalists and prosecutors face -- are we getting adequate information?" Clohessy said. "In at least a dozen dioceses (including the San Francisco Archdiocese), the names of the review board members aren't even made public. In others, people have to go through a cleric or church employee."

Nevertheless, many reform-minded Catholics hope that the molestation scandal will force structural changes, giving the laity more power in church governance.

They point to the formation of organizations like Voice of the Faithful, a centrist lobbying group that formed in Boston and has opened chapters across the United States and now reports a membership of 30,000.

David Gibson, author of a just-published book titled "The Coming Catholic Church -- How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism," said Voices of the Faithful or something like it "could be the last best hope for lay activism."

"They're not too far left or right. They're trying to hit it down the center," he said. "It won't be so much a lay revolution, but a lay evolution, slowing building up from the parish level."

Gibson said reform Catholics should focus on the "boring nuts and bolts of the Catholic Church," rather than pushing for women priests or married clergy.

"Follow the money, and you'll change the church," said Gibson, who spent four years in Rome working for church-run Vatican Radio.

"The knock on Catholics is that they are passive -- that it's always 'father knows best.' In a way, the scandal shows how that stereotype can be true," he said. "The bishops were able to hide all of these huge cash payments for years."

Another former Vatican employee and seasoned church commentator, A.W. Richard Sipe, disagrees with Gibson. He says nothing will change until the church reconsiders mandatory celibacy for priests, along with its other teachings on sexual morality.

"This has to play out as a complete dialogue on all sexual matters," said Sipe, a former monk and the author of "Sex, Power and Priests."

"It doesn't go only to sexual abuse by clergy, but to homosexuality, contraception, sex before marriage, sex after divorce," he said. "All this needs to be addressed before the bishops can regain any credibility. Clergy sexual abuse is just a symptom. How can you cure the problem by just paying attention to the symptom?"


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