Six months ago, most of the nation's Catholic bishops were--to put it charitably--obtuse in their understanding of how to deal with clergy sexual abuse. First they ignored the media storm. Then they tried to spin the criticism as Catholic-bashing.
By late April, the eight U.S. cardinals were traveling to Rome for an audience with the pope. But they emerged with a muddled message, declaring first that they would implement a zero-tolerance policy and then later saying they would summarily defrock only "notorious" repeat offenders. Finally, early this month, they issued a draft of the new policy that would have allowed a loophole for one-strike past offenders.
The bishops just didn't get it.
But this week, after six hard months (or 20 years, depending how you look at it), they finally did get it. They emerged from an embarrassing, exhausting, wrenching meeting with a tough document committing them to bouncing out of ministry any priest guilty of any sexual offense with children or teenagers in his past, present, or future (read excerpts). They promised to immediately turn over to civil authorities the names of priests who are even simply accused of sexual abuse with minors. They pledged to hold a day of fasting and penance for their own sins on Aug. 14.
Perhaps most significantly, they promised to appoint a national review board that will produce an annual accounting to determine which dioceses are complying--and which aren't--with the new rules. The national board includes Gov. Frank Keating, R-Okla., and Washington attorney Robert Bennett (brother of former Reagan drug czar Bill Bennett). Keating has said he will press for the resignation of bishops--including Cardinal Law--who have handled abuse cases improperly.
"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States," Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops conference, said after the bishops approved the document. And to clergy abuse victims, he said in a later news conference: "Your pain will not be forgotten."
Victims, however, aren't happy with the new "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The document says that, effective immediately, an offending cleric will not be allowed to wear a collar, celebrate Mass publicly, identify himself as a priest, or participate in any ministry. And it suggests such priests be sent to monasteries to live out their days in "a regiment of prayer and penance in a controlled environment." But victims say the document is critically flawed because it doesn't immediately force the church to defrock such offenders.
"We all know the kind of restrictive measures that priests who molest children should have is the restriction of a jail cell," says David Clohessy, national organizer of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
But victims are also angry that the bishops didn't deal more directly with their own blame for the crisis. Why, asked SNAP president Peter Isely, are bishops still in office when many of them have in the past moved such offending priests around instead of turning them over to the police?
Some of those issues were thrashed out behind closed doors on Thursday, according to Reese. It's clear from watching the bishops' body language and reading between the lines that the group is badly divided. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose archdiocese is at the center of the storm, has appeared isolated this week from many of his fellow bishops, often moving around the ballroom and the hallways alone.
Gregory alluded to the rift on Thursday when he said, "There is a lot of anger among us in this room--righteous anger...The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops in their dioceses has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a number of bishops during the past 10 years. The anger over this is very real and very understandable. I know. I feel it myself."
And apparently there has been frank talk of the need for the bishops to do something to acknowledge their own culpability. The closed-door session, according to Reese, included talk of asking guilty bishops to resign--although no one named Law specifically.
Despite the document's shortcomings, though, the new charter is a big step forward for this insular group.
"It's not enough to please everyone, but there is a momentum of change going on," says Jason Berry, author of the landmark 1992 book on the priest pedophilia scandal, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."
How did the bishops manage to move from those winter days of defensive stonewalling to the comparative openness of the Dallas meeting?
First, they admitted they were wrong. Over and over and over. "We bishops apologize to anyone harmed by one of our priests and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse," Gregory said after the bishops approved the new charter.
Second, they were excruciatingly careful in their language choices. All day, as they debated document amendments, most bishops seemed painfully aware that every word would be examined. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., for instance, suggested an amendment that recognized some dioceses did implement processes over the years that safeguarded children.
"This document will be scrutinized by the public," he said. "It needs balance." The amendment was accepted.
And third, they policed bishops who tried to backpedal. If a bishop arose to try to water down the document, three more would pop out of their chairs, approach the microphones, and shoot him down.
Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., for instance, argued that the bishops should insert into the document the word "credible" when alluding to accusations against priests. Suggesting that the bishops were putting themselves into a position of "ratting out our priests," he also said that Catholic canon law is much older than even the U.S. Constitution-and should therefore be considered more important by the bishops.
A couple other bishops rose to support his complaint, which appeared to irritate Gregory.
But sure enough, Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh jumped up and said, "The civil authorities are saying this is our obligation. Canon law doesn't matter here. If we're dealing with a crime, we need to apply civil law."
Doran's amendment was defeated.
On Thursday, the bishops absorbed a stunning tongue-lashing from victims and from well-regarded laity. But on Friday, they seemed to gather themselves up, take a deep breath, and move forward.
"It will be a long time before they regain credibility with their people," Reese says. "This meeting has been a humiliating experience, but it was required, and it's a good thing they did it."
Now we wait to see if they can make it stick.
Day One: Battered Bishops
To witness a gathering of bishops sit and be accused to their faces of sinfulness was jarring.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston looked like a cat who'd been kicked--angry, slit-eyed, and still. He was listening to a victim sobbing as he described how he'd gone on a fishing trip as a boy with his priest, and was attacked in a motel room afterward. The other bishops mostly looked down and shuffled papers, as their faces grew pink, then red, then scarlet.
Most of bishops tried to look empathetic and unshaken, but it wasn't easy.
At one point during his speech, David Clohessy, the spokesman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), passed around a photograph of a sex-abuse victim who had recently committed suicide. Weeping and sniffing, he handed the picture to someone in the front row of bishops. A few took a good, hard look at the photograph. Most of them scanned it and passed it on. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York didn't even give it a glance: he just handed it to the bishop next to him.
However, another equally tough speech got a standing ovation. It came from Wilton Gregory, the chairman of the Conference of Bishops. "There is a lot of anger among us in this room--righteous anger...The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops in their dioceses has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a number of bishops during the past 10 years. The anger over this is very real and very understandable. I know. I feel it myself."
Usually at these conferences, the opening speech is a boring homily, laced with flowery references to Vatican pronouncements.
Gregory skipped the Latin phraseology and instead made the bishops listen to a gruesome list of their failings: reassigning priest molesters, not reporting criminal behavior, worrying more about embarrassment than protecting children, and treating victims as enemies. And Gregory repeatedly said he--speaking for himself and the bishops--was sorry and asked for forgiveness. The most vivid critic, by far, was R. Scott Appleby, an expert on American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. He unloaded a blistering 21-page speech to the bishops, all of whom looked stunned when it was over. And remember: Appleby is no raving Catholic-basher. He's a well-regarded moderate, non-activist layman, a consummate academic. His tone was calm, but it was a scary calm.
Appleby described the sex abuse crisis as a "disaster." He said some bishops have "behaved atrociously," "marked by arrogance, lack of repentance, and repeated failure to be collegial." He said the laity believe the underlying scandal is the behavior of bishops--"even NOW, after all the sorry revelations."
"This is difficult for some of you to hear, and some of you will refuse, even now, to listen to it," Appleby said.
He accused them of being infected with "unchecked power." Maybe most astonishing, Appleby told the bishops flat-out what their flock is saying: that the church is "morally bankrupt." He called members of the hierarchy, "including those at the center of the storm"--clearly a reference to Law--"unrepentant and even defiant, blaming the culture, the media, or their...opponents for the disgrace that has been visited upon them."
Many of the bishops sat--silent, unmoving--their chins cradled in their palms.
You couldn't sit here and not think that this was a historic day for the American Catholic Church. To witness a gathering of bishops--heretofore among the most revered men in society--sit and be accused to their faces of sinfulness, was jarring.
In the old days, reporters had ready access to the bishops. Even when the bishops debated dicey issues such as the Pastoral Letter on Women a decade ago, they would emerge from their meeting, gather around the coffee urns in the back of the ballroom, and chat up all the reporters, observers, and groupies who came to watch them. One night during the conferences, there would invariably be a media cocktail party hosted by the bishops, and most of them dropped by to sip a chardonnay with us. You could snag a bishop on the elevator, or in the coffee shop.
The rules at this meeting are quite different: If you are caught trying to talk to a bishop you get your credential revoked.
Speaking of media, one of the peculiar things I've noticed about how the bishops are handling the crisis is their relationship with media.
Bishop Gregory, in his opening address, got in a good dig. "During these last months, the image of the Catholic hierarchy in this country has been distorted to an extent which I would have not thought possible six months ago. Sad and disturbing facts, often long in the past, have been readily presented in ways that create an erroneous image of the Church in 2002."
He said the bishops accept the challenge the coverage has created. But he added: "I count on you, the media, to report fully and fairly on what we do these days and in the days and years to come."
Even Appleby began his speech with a media critique. He'd been talking to the bishops "through the media" the last five months, he said. Then he added: "I far prefer the present forum, where one's words cannot be edited to support a pre-existing story line with invisible headlines that read: 'New Evidence of Catholic Church Decadence,' 'Church Cannot Do Anything Right,' or 'See-We Told You So.'"
Believe me, we media types have written and said a lot of dumb stuff about the Catholic Church over the years. But this isn't one of those times. I've read a lot of the coverage given to this crisis. And I have no idea what these guys are complaining about.
Some people still love the media, though. The activists are floating around the media room, passing out press releases and hovering to be interviewed. Outside the hotel, a smallish group of protesters is waving the usual posters. To wit: "We Want Holy Bishops, Not Paranoid CEOs," and "Please Resign," and "Homosexuality is the Root of the Sex Abuse Scandal," and "They're Pedophiles, Not Gay," and "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Parishioners Children."
You get the impression that some of the bishops still crave attention, though. After the morning session, many of them descended a long escalator, which ends at the door to the media room.
Naturally, a lot of us were camped out at the bottom of the escalator to watch them. (Remember, we're not allowed to talk to them unless they talk to us, so we just stood around looking at them.) Most of them ducked around the corner and out of sight. But Bishop John W. Yanta, of Amarillo, Texas, floated down the escalator with his thumbs up and a smile on his face.
And Cardinal Law, inexplicably, strode right toward the cameras' white lights, as if by instinct, as he said in a loud voice to no one in particular, "I have a meeting in the Pyramid Room." He walked over to the velvet roped-off area where the television cameras were situated and shook a few hands.
After a few seconds, realizing people were not rushing to be near him, he turned in the direction of the Pyramid Room. Then he loped away.