Catholic Bishops Look for Leadership
Abuse Scandal Reshaping Hierarchy

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post
June 19, 2003

In moments of turmoil throughout the second half of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States always had a cardinal with the political savvy and force of character to corral his peers. The names are legendary: Francis Spellman, Terence Cooke, Joseph Bernardin, John O'Connor.

As the nation's Catholic bishops gather in St. Louis today for three days of meetings, the absence of such a figure is conspicuous, according to Catholic scholars, clergy and lay leaders.

The sexual abuse crisis "has exposed a lot of things, and lack of leadership is one of them," said Patrick W. Carey, a historian of theology at Marquette University.

In last-minute changes, the topic of sexual abuse by priests was added this week to the agenda for the meeting, and the bishops set aside one full day -- tomorrow -- for "prayerful reflection," with no other business to be conducted. But Boston University management professor James L. Post, president of the lay group Voice of the Faithful, said "the really pressing issue" is leadership, and it is never on the formal agenda.

In Post's view, the unspoken but urgent question facing the bishops is whether a cardinal will emerge who can speak for the whole church in the United States and help restore the bishops' moral authority. Their credibility ebbed this week with the arrest and subsequent resignation of Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix, who has been charged as the driver in a fatal hit-and-run accident, and the resignation of former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating as head of a lay panel on sexual abuse.

Keating had engaged in a verbal feud with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles after Keating compared some bishops to the Mafia in their devotion to secrecy. That episode showed "there isn't any single cardinal anymore who can step in quietly, behind the scenes, and say, 'Settle it, boys,' " Post said. "There's this political vacuum in the American church right now, when leadership is needed most."

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA and former head of the Harvard Divinity School, agreed that "there is no one person who, by dint of personality and moral authority, sets the helm."

But Hehir said he is not sure that is a bad thing. "There is something to be said for collegial decision-making in circumstances such as this."

R. Scott Appleby, an expert on the American church at the University of Notre Dame, said the weakness of leadership is not just a matter of personalities, but of structure. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he said, has no real power over its individual members.

The pope's "policy has been to reinforce the notion that the bishops report directly to Rome, and he has not been a great supporter of national bodies of bishops," Appleby said. "I think it's a regrettable lack of confidence from the pope in his own bishops."

Nonetheless, at a meeting one year ago in Dallas, the bishops committed themselves to unified action on removing abusers from ministry. Many bishops have followed through. But discord and divergence continue.

During the past year, one diocese, San Bernardino, Calif., sued the Archdiocese of Boston for transferring a pedophile priest without disclosing his record. The Louisville archdiocese settled 243 sex abuse lawsuits for $25.7 million after five days of intense negotiations, while settlement talks in Boston have dragged on for months.

Despite the zero-tolerance policy adopted in Dallas, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston has retained a priest who admits he "crossed a proper boundary" by holding a teenage boy "in an inappropriate manner," the Dallas Morning News reported recently.

About two-thirds of the 195 U.S. dioceses have responded to an extensive questionnaire from Keating's panel asking for detailed information on every abuse allegation since 1950. But some bishops and their legal advisers have questioned whether the research could play into the hands of plaintiffs' lawyers.

In sum, there has been "a stunning amount of individuation and drift," said David O'Brien, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

While the sexual abuse scandal has revealed weaknesses in the hierarchy of the church, it is also reshaping that hierarchy. It has led to the resignations of the country's most senior prelate, Boston's Cardinal Bernard M. Law, and an influential liberal voice, Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

How well bishops have handled the issue is now assumed to be an important qualification for promotion.

The president of the bishops' conference, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., has a record of removing suspected abusers, and he has played a delicate coordinating role among his peers. But he has been criticized by Mahony for not consulting widely before appointing Keating.

A year ago, Mahony had positioned himself as a leading advocate of openness. Since then, he has fought to prevent prosecutors from gaining access to priests' files in California, where the church faces an estimated 400 sex abuse lawsuits and an active grand jury investigation.

With Law gone and Mahony embroiled in legal troubles, the cardinals who could emerge to lead the bishops out of the wilderness of sexual abuse include William Keeler of Baltimore, who has publicly released the names of accused priests and the cost of the scandal to his archdiocese; Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who was a visible spokesman for U.S. cardinals meeting with the pope last year; and Francis George of Chicago, who helped smooth out differences with the Vatican over the zero-tolerance policy.

For his part, Gregory said he often wishes that his mentor, Bernardin, or the late Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit were around to help guide the church. "But none of my predecessors, not one," he said, "faced a moment like this."


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