The head of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responds to Beliefnet's recent feature:

In the quotation Beliefnet cites from Bishop Gregory's opening talk at the June 13-15 general meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is essential to note that he did not distinguish between "good" and "worst" bishops but between the "solid and good work" of the majority and "the imprudent decisions" of a few.

Even the best can make a bad mistake on occasion; and a good and generally effective policy dealing with sexual abuse of minors by clergy may falter in its application in individual cases for a variety of reasons. This is not unknown to happen in the civil law's handling of even the most serious cases, including those involving the death penalty.

When it comes to disciplining priest offenders, the problem for bishops has not been the dereliction of duty--as has been too quickly assumed--but rather a conflict of duties.

The Catholic Church firmly believes that, once ordained, a man is a priest forever. Even laicization (defrocking) does not deprive a priest of fundamental priestly powers to say Mass or forgive sins. It does bring to an end both the Church's obligations to him and his obligations to the Church (such as observing celibacy). Short of laicization, bishops can take effective steps to make sure a priest does not exercise his ministry. But both laicization and removal from ministry are governed by the canon law of the Church. In trying to fulfill their duty to protect children and young people, bishops had to make sure that they were also acting in accord with canon law which requires due process for the accused. They also wished to make decisions which would be final and be upheld if there were an appeal to the Holy See.

The complexity of some of these cases, about which often simplistic judgments are made in the media, can be found in the fact that some existed through the administrations of more than one bishop with sometimes conflicting advice being given to bishops by competent professionals.

So it is not about the abuse of power by bishops, as the media so often claim, but actually about the limits placed on the power of bishops by both Church dogma and law. For a bishop, the priests of his diocese are a given. He is required to support them and give them a ministry except for serious reasons. Sexual abuse of a minor comprises a serious reason of this kind. However, in the past, if a priest could demonstrate that he repented his sinfulness and that treatment and aftercare had rendered him not dangerous to others in the Church, then a bishop might feel required by canon law to provide some kind of ministry for him, usually a restricted one. A priest could make this case even after serving a prison sentence for his crime.

Due process is a value in the Church's canon law as it in our society in general; and as with civil law, it sometimes results in the final verdict's being a long time in coming. Bishops could seek to dismiss a man from the priesthood, but that involves a lengthy and cumbersome canonical process subject to appeal to Rome. It should be noted that when Cardinal Law short-circuited the standard canonical process by seeking John Geoghan's unilateral dismissal from the priesthood directly by the Pope--four years before the Boston Globe seriously got on Geoghan's case--some canon lawyers criticized his action because of a seeming lack of canonical due process.

To do justice to this matter, cases can't be delivered to the public by the bushel, shorn of significant details. Fairness demands a case by case study to see how decisions were made. Usually it will be clear that they were made based on what was known at the time. They were also open to reversal based on new information, as was the case with Geoghan. Lists of "best" and "worst" bishops disguise this fact, rather than helping enlighten the public about what went into these decisions and why some of the finest and most conscientious men in any community are now committed to making different decisions in the future.

What they and all the bishops concluded in Dallas was that a concern for the canonical obligations to priests must be balanced with providing full and complete protection for children and young people in the ministries and institutions of the Catholic Church.

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