What do the bishops plan to do with priests who are removed from ministry and who cannot function as priests because their history of sex abuse of minors? One solution, offered by several bishops, both in news conferences prior to Dallas and in comments from the floor during their discussion of their proposed charter, was to send the offending priests to a monastery.
If anything reinforced a growing conviction that the bishops just weren't thinking, that comment did it. Not only did the bishops apparently not run their suggestion by any actual communities of monastic men before they made it, but, some suggest, they also reveal their ignorance about religious life in general and monastic life in particular.
NCR spoke with top leadership of more than a half dozen men's monastic communities around the country. All of those interviewed voiced understanding for the bishops' difficult situation. But they were also clear that that the prospect of making their monasteries the dumping ground for problem priests just wouldn't fly. And several said the idea itself was downright offensive.
`They're just clueless'
"It certainly makes me wonder what kind of theology of religious life the bishops are operating out of," said one Trappist abbot who asked not to have his name or his community identified. "It seems, that like many people, they're just clueless about what monastic life is."
By suggesting that sex abusers be sent to monasteries, the abbot continued, the bishops are "buying into the old stereotypes ...that we live this medieval, idyllic and isolated life, and that a person's problems disappear when he comes here."
But, say the bishop calls and asks you to consider it. Would you bring his request to the community? The abbot laughed. "Not on your life! They'd shoot me!"
"I'd find a respectful and diplomatic way to decline," he said, "but I would say very clearly, `Bishop, that's a very, very bad idea.' ''
Another Trappist abbot concurred. Abbot Damian Carr heads one of the order's largest U.S. houses, St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., home to 65 monks. "I'd be mighty surprised that you'd pick up from [any monastic community] that this is a viable solution," he told NCR.
There is, of course some historical precedent for the bishops' suggestion. Carr noted that for centuries, monasteries were known as refugium peccatorum -- a place of refuge for sinners, where people often came to live among the monastic community in repentance and penance for sinful deeds.