The State of the Church
When Catholic Bishops Convene in St. Louis This Week, They Should Recommit Themselves to Thereforms That Were Made Last Year in Dallas

St. Petersburg Times
June 17, 2003


One year after adopting new disciplinary measures against sexually abusive priests, America's Roman Catholic bishops will meet in St. Louis this week with a mixed record of achievement. On the legal and monetary front, individual dioceses have settled scores of sex-abuse lawsuits without bankrupting the church. This is important, for it shows the church can accept responsibility for the sex abuse scandal without risking financial ruin. Some bishops, however, are losing patience with the victims, the investigations and the reforms, and their equivocation has begun to raise troubling concerns.

The bishops agreed in Dallas last year to remove a priest from pastoral duty for even a single act of abuse. Though the measure gave the bishops some latitude, and fell short of what some victims hoped for, it nonetheless addressed the central problem by seeking to remove sexual predators from the priesthood. Even the bishops' self-serving decision not to censure themselves and their later watering-down of the discipline policy did not diminish the larger symbolism of the steps they took in Dallas. The church hierarchy responded to a popular revolt by good priests and the public. Beyond their commitment to remove problem priests, the bishops approved new monitoring reforms and a role for the laity, steps that marked a new day for the church.

So it's disappointing to see even before the first anniversary some bishops send mixed signals about their commitment to discipline and openness. Some appear to be testing whether the public interest in reform has subsided.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York reversed position last week after the New York Times reported he had disclosed his intention not to name clerics accused or removed. Bishops in California objected to a national survey on the prevalence of abuse that the bishops called for at their Dallas meeting. That stance irritated Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor appointed by the bishops to chair a review panel monitoring the reforms. Earlier this month, Keating suggested that some bishops were acting "like La Cosa Nostra." That remark worsened the relationship between Keating and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, and prompted Keating to resign this week.

The bishops' spring meeting in St. Louis this week is an opportunity for the hierarchy to step back and recommit itself to the letter and spirit of the reforms. The Louisville Archdiocese's agreement this month to settle 243 claims for $25.7-million is the fourth multimillion dollar resolution since the bishops met in Dallas.

But while Catholic parishes may be staying open, Catholic charities are taking a hit. The church's integrity, finances and broad social mission are dependent on the bishops making a break from a culture of denial and secrecy. They need to be seen as proactive, not resistant. If the bishops hope to weather the hundreds of new abuse cases, the ongoing probes by criminal prosecutors and the erosion of their moral authority, they will need to move beyond equivocation.


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