ack in January, when what many Catholics now simply call "the Scandal" broke, I had a stormy correspondence with a bishop one of the last bishops I would have anticipated arguing with. The bishop was angry over the hard-line language I used in my early commentaries on the scandal. He took particular offense at my saying, in a letter to him, that it appeared that protecting children and families was not a priority for the bishops.
"To suggest that they protect their resources before they protect their people is not just insulting, but unjust and wrong," the bishop wrote. "If you really believe that, why would you remain Catholic?"
I told him that I remain Catholic not because I had any faith in the bishops' handling of the sex-abuse matters, but because I believe that Catholicism is true. As well-taught Catholics believe, the truth or falsity of the Catholic faith does not stand or fall on the moral worth of individual priests or bishops. It was startling, however, to learn that a good bishop seemed to be suggesting that faith in the hierarchy is the sine qua non of being Catholic. The Catholic faith cannot exist without bishops and clergy, but the bishops and clergy are not the whole of the Catholic faith.
In the excruciating months for Catholicism in America that followed our exchange, in which four bishops have resigned over sex allegations, and the public has become familiar with the sordid personal lives of priests Paul Shanley, Ronald Paquin, Daniel Herek, and so many others, I have often wondered how that bishop's thinking has changed, if at all. It better have, for the sake of the Church in this country, which faces a grave challenge.
Today, he and all the other American bishops arrive in Dallas for their annual meeting, under a dismal and angry cloud of suspicion, one few of us could have imagined back in January. Polls have shown that most American Catholics place primary blame for this scandal not on the abusive priests, but on the bishops who allowed them to prey on minors and families for years. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago understands that a policy change regarding handling clergy sex abuse is only the surface issue. As he writes in his column this week, "[T]he deeper reality also at stake throughout the discussion is the holiness of priests and the trustworthiness of bishops." That's not something you can legislate into existence.
From the bishops' point of view, the best thing that can happen in their two-day Dallas meeting is quick and vigorous agreement on the reform proposal put forth by an ad hoc committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), followed by a public sense that the Church has turned the corner in this scandal. Among other things, the proposal calls for defrocking any priest henceforth who is guilty of sexual abuse of a minor. It also proposes that priests who, in the past, have been diagnosed with pedophilia, or who have committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor, should be laicized.
There are problems with this. For one, there have been reports that many bishops think the proposals too harsh and unforgiving. We are likely to see open debate on the convention floor (the Catholic cable network EWTN will carry the sessions live). Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative magazine Crisis, last week quoted an unidentified high-level Vatican official saying, "The bishops are divided on these issues. Their divisions are going to become even more apparent at that meeting."
On the other hand, some have complained that the proposals don't go far enough. The "one free pass" provision for past child abusers has been particularly criticized. A leading Catholic psychiatrist told me it's absurd to think that someone who molests a minor only does it once. And syndicated columnist Michael Kelly, himself a Catholic, had this to say: "'But it was just that one time, your honor,' is a defense seldom successfully employed in criminal sexual assault cases. It is not immediately clear to a layman why an institution devoted to the teaching of a higher order of morality should adopt a threshold for the punishment of immorality (not to mention criminality) that would be laughed out of, say, the Suffolk County courthouse."
And then there is the urgent matter of what Weekly Standard essayist Mary Eberstadt calls, in her essay of the same name, "The Elephant in the Sacristy": homosexuality in the priesthood. The overwhelming number of priest sex-abuse cases with minors involve postpubescent males which is not technically pedophilia (thereby creating a huge loophole in the bishops' proposal) and the bishops aren't even scheduled to discuss it. Michael S. Rose's tremendously important book, Goodbye, Good Men, has made it abundantly clear that unchaste homosexuals networking in seminaries and throughout the Church are a big part of this scandal. Yet the bishops, like the media, prefer to look the other way. Archbishop Harry Flynn, who serves on the bishops committee that produced the sex-abuse proposal, said on Nightline last night that the bishops wouldn't discuss the matter in Dallas, and he regretted earlier comments made by a Vatican spokesman, who said gays shouldn't be in the priesthood.
Rome itself poses another serious challenge to reform. Whatever policy the American bishops approve must be okayed by the Vatican to go into effect, and it has been reported that Rome is deeply skeptical of "zero tolerance" and not always for discreditable reasons (as victims-advocate Father Thomas P. Doyle has warned, there is a danger that some bishops could use a streamlined laicization system to railroad innocent priests they want to be rid of). While the Holy Father instructed the American cardinals in their recent meeting to clean up the mess, it is likely that the pope is too enfeebled to give the matter the close attention it deserves. Into the breach come the Curial cardinals and officials, who have indicated a preposterous and insulting belief that the scandal is the fault of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. media.
The authoritative Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, which recently said bishops could not be held responsible for sexual misconduct of their priests, trashed the American media for its "anti-Catholic and therefore anti-Roman and anti-papist" spirit. The magazine, whose thinking reflects the Vatican's, speculated absurdly that the U.S. press wants payback for the Vatican's opposition to the Persian Gulf War, and its warnings against vengeance after the September 11 attacks.
As if that weren't enough, a hysterical Honduran cardinal last week compared the American media to Nero, Diocletian, Hitler and Stalin, and compared what Cardinal Bernard Law has endured with revelations made in the Boston media to communist show trials. While those statements are extreme by any reckoning, they are perhaps understandable as the emotional reaction of a flustered old churchman. The uncomprehending stares Deal Hudson received from Vatican insiders when he tried to explain to them what's happening to the Church here are more unsettling, at least to me, because it shows how cut off the leaders at Catholicism's central command are from the reality on the ground in America.
"Needless to say," Hudson wrote, "I came away from Rome with little hope for the upcoming Dallas meeting of the bishops."
The final hurdle the bishops must clear is ... themselves. Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been sickened and astonished to confront the repugnant sex crimes child-rape chief among them committed by priests. They wonder, as any normal person would, what kind of men in a position of authority can learn of these unspeakable acts and fail to act to stop them. They wonder, as any normal person would, what kind of Christian leaders would protect child predators, unleash lawyers on victims of these priests, and publicly lie about these matters. They wonder, as any normal person would, why, after all that failed bishops have on their conscience including secret sexual sin of their own they do not resign, and go to a monastery to do penance for the rest of their lives.
So many bishops seem to have been involved in the cover-up that it begs the question: How can an institution so riddled with this behavior reform itself? The Dallas Morning News reports today that two-thirds of sitting American bishops have to some degree allowed priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse to continue working in ministry. The USCCB did not dispute the numbers. When asked by the Morning News if some bishops were too much a part of the problem to be a part of the solution, Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas, answered frankly: "I honestly don't know."
The Church doesn't need new policies; we need new men. I don't mean that literally, though clearly in many cases, such as Boston's, a new bishop is required. I mean we need many of these bishops to be converted, truly changed in their minds and hearts. Any new policy voted on in Dallas is only as good as the willingness of each individual bishop to enforce it. There is nothing nothing in the church's rules that would have prevented a bishop from sacking a John Geoghan or a Paul Shanley at the first sign of trouble. The problem isn't a lack of law; the problem is a lack of leadership, a lack of virtue, a lack of humility, a lack, even, of faith. That is not something two days in Dallas will likely impart to any of the American bishops, who have shown so little of it till now.