On Friday, the Vatican officially reacted to the American bishops' plan for dealing with pedophile priests. But much debate ensued over what message the Holy See was trying to send, not only about sex abuse but also the role of laity in the church and the authority of bishops.

To sort it out, Beliefnet talked to a number of the leading Catholic analyists and thinkers, including:

  • George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II
  • John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter
  • The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America
  • The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine
  • Mike Emerto, spokesperson for Voice of the Faithful, a grass-roots lay group
  • The Rev. Daniel Ward, canon lawyer and director of the Legal Resources Center for Religious
  • James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University

    General reaction | Meaning | Lay power
    Civil vs. canon law | Bishops' accountability
    Why the confusion?

    Did the Vatican reject the American bishops' action in Dallas?

    [Cardinal] Re's letter should not be read as a Vatican rejection of the charter--at least not yet. We have to wait to see what comes from the mixed commission. If the due process questions are resolved satisfactorily, the charter will be better for it if it can protect both children and innocent priests. The fact that the Vatican committed itself to resolving these issues before the November meeting of the U.S. bishops shows that it understands the critical nature of the problem.

    What does the response mean for the American church?

    Ward: That they weren't going to just outright reject the American bishops' charter, but also that something additional needs to be done with it. And they want to work it out jointly rather than using their usual procedure--which is to send it back to the American bishops' conference and have them deal with it. This is a way of saying, "This is an urgent thing, and we don't have time for that. So this commission will work on it together."

    Hitchcock: At a minimum that no bishop in America can be required to follow these procedures, whereas previously the [bishops'] conference had said they were. Are bishops free to follow the procedures [issued in Dallas]? That's not clear. There were lots of priests who previously resigned quietly or allowed themselves to be dismissed quietly who probably now will be filing appeals. These are cases where the bishop says there's been a credible complaint so you're suspended from the priesthood. If a bishop gets what he thinks is a credible complaint that a priest has been misbehaving and the priest says, "I'm appealing this case through the ecclesiastical courts," conceivably he could remain in his ministry indefinitely.

    Yes, we believe in forgiveness, but let's say somebody is revealed to have done something 20 years ago and says, "I'm terribly sorry and I'm repentant." My feeling is if a priest is truly repentant he ought to think to himself, "I deserve some punishment." To present yourself as a wronged individual even though you admit you did something wrong is sort of like a criminal being in court and saying, "Yes, I did it and I'm sorry but I shouldn't be sent to prison because that's unfair."

    Why is the Vatican so concerned about making changes to the charter and the norms (the legal enabling articles that must be approved for the policy to be binding)?

    Ward: They're saying the charter doesn't comport with the universal law of the church, the Code of Canon Law. That's what the bishops were asking for-a deviation from the code. To give that deviation to one country and make substantial changes--that has import for the whole rest of the church and the value of the code itself. What the American bishops were doing in a sense was changing the law.

    Bishop Gregory said bishops can continue to implement the norms. What does the Vatican response means for priests placed on administrative leave?

    Neuhaus: Rome is clearly saying that one size does not fit all. You have to look at the clearly inadequate and infinitely elastic definition of sex abuse that was adopted at Dallas. Not to put to fine a point on it, but by that definition, almost every adult in the world could be accused of sexual abuse. Even if you look the wrong way at a person, and they interpret it in a way different from the way you intended, you're a sex abuser. This is absurd.

    In some of these cases, priests are probably guilty. In that case, zero tolerance certainly applies. And bishops can't abdicate their responsibility in making these judgments. But in some cases, when some people have been removed from ministry simply because somebody, often unnamed, has made an accusation--clearly those instances will have to be reviewed.

    How might the revising of the norms affect a priest put on leave for a one-time offense? Do you think he should be reinstated?

    Weigel: It depends on what the one-time offense was. If it involved the sexual abuse of a child, my view is that there's a permanent disfigurement of the iconography of the man's priesthood. Whatever we believe about the character of his priesthood, he's lost the capacity to manifest that publicly. If, at the other end of the scale, the one-time incident involved a non-coercive one-time sexual relationship and the guy wakes up and says, "Oh my God, what have I done?" and repents and lives an upright life, that's one that requires very careful discernment.

    But we need to broaden the discussion. If a bishop knows that a priest is habitually violating his celibacy [homosexually or heterosexually] with consenting adults, the bishop has an obligation to say to that priest "Either this ceases immediately, and you commit yourself to a program of spiritual renewal that will allow you to live the promises you have made to Christ and the Church, or I am going to seek your reduction to the lay state." Protecting children is the issue, but beneath that issue is the integrity of the priesthood, the integrity of celibate chastity.

    Are the laity worried about the new commission limiting the power of lay review boards?

    First and foremost, open and honest dialogue needs to happen. Picture bishops, laity, priests, and survivors around a 4-sided table to address the sexual abuse crisis. The findings of the survivors and the laity need to be strongly considered. These are lay review boards with authoritative power--not power in terms of changing dogma, but in terms of temporal affairs--addressing the crisis. The panels' findings have to be taken seriously. It needs to be a working collaboration between the laity and the hierarchy.

    Allen: The Dallas document is ambiguous about whether the boards are sounding boards, to give bishops advice, or whether the boards are decision-making ones, where a bishop would turn a case over to the board and oblige himself to honor whatever decision they make. There are two documents. There's the charter, which is the overall policy, and the norms, the legal enabling articles. Most of the review board information is in the charter.

    Canon law envisions that the only agent who can make disciplinary decisions about a priest is his bishop. Catholic theology understands the relationship between a bishop and his priest along the lines of a father-son relationship. The Vatican has always been concerned about other extraneous elements entering into that equation. The Vatican would want these boards defined as advisory and would also be concerned with how much access a board has to all the information that a bishop may be privy to about a priest.

    The idea is that a priest ought to be able to tell things in confidence to his bishop that won't go anyplace else. If the notion is that the bishop is going to be turning over every scrap of paper and every recollection about a guy to the lay review board, from the Vatican's point of view, this might compromise the bishop-priest relationship. And protecting that relationship is a high value for the Vatican.

    If a true dialogue between the laity and the bishops doesn't happen, will groups like Voice of the Faithful continue to exert financial pressure, as they did in creating the alternate fund for Boston Catholics who wished to withhold money from the diocese?

    Emerto: Certainly if the dialogue is not opened up, one way is financial pressure.

    Is the Vatican unhappy about the lay review boards?

    Neuhaus: The primary worry is who has the oversight of the overseer. Who makes sure a bishop is doing his job? Traditionally, the answer is Rome. Some people think, understandably, that Rome has not done a good job of that in recent history.

    Another answer that's been posed is that the bishops' conference should exercise oversight over its member bishops. But then the National Review Board was slipped in there by Dallas. And all of a sudden you've got a group of lay people who are overseeing the overseers, and relying upon the media to be the enforcers. Which is a very troubling arrangement, because it touches on how Catholics believe Christ intended the Church to be constituted. According to Catholic doctrine, the Church is governed by bishops who are the successors to the apostles, in communion with the bishop of Rome, the successor to Peter. What do you do with this national review board that somehow has been interjected into the government of the church?

    Weigel: Everyone's biggest concern should be that a lay review board, which can be helpful adjuncts to a local bishop, not usurp the headship that is properly and only the bishop's. This cuts in two directions. Boards can attempt to usurp that headship, and bishops can attempt to deflect their response onto lay review boards. The question is how can the boards be helpful without usurping his ordained right and duty to be the final judge in his diocese.

    The local bishop is the bottom of the bottom line in his diocese. One of the reasons the Church has gotten itself into this crisis has been a deficient notion of headship in the episcopate. Bishops are not ordained to be discussion group moderators. They are ordained to be the head of a local church. Now, any serious leader knows that leadership is enhanced by consultation. That's the role that lay review boards can play.

    The norms didn't imply that the review board had absolute control or veto power over the bishop.

    Neuhaus: No, they certainly couldn't remove a bishop. But as Governor Keating has made clear again and again, his intention is that by drawing up a list of bishops who are not abiding by the norms, and by this being made public through the media, effective pressure would be brought to bear in order to make sure bishops did their duty as Dallas prescribed it.

    Weigel: Then one has to ask what's the binding character of that recommendation. What's at stake is not complicated. It's the reaffirmation of the responsibility of bishops to be the authority that they were ordained to be in their diocese.

    Is the Vatican concerned about bishops turning matters over to civil authorities?

    Neuhaus: Yes. One has to realize, when speaking of the Universal Church, that it's one thing to talk about the United States where you may have a high level of confidence in civil authorities. But in most countries of the world, you have governments that are very hostile to the church. Rome won't agree that the confidential files and workings of the Church will be put into the hands of hostile governments.

    Weigel: It should be a concern for everyone. We can't frame this in terms of the Vatican against the Americans. The question of how ecclesial discipline related to civil law is fairly obvious in the obvious cases-when there has manifestly been criminal activity, the public authorities need to be apprised of it. But there's a whole range of problems of abusive behavior that fall in a gray area. What the Holy See would probably like to see, and what everyone should want to see, is that the local bishop have a reasonable certainty that an allegation of criminal sexual abuse has a serious foundation before he notifies the public authorities.

    On the one hand, we have the obligation of the local bishop to apprise public authorities when he has reasonable certitude that a criminal act has been performed. The other side is that you can't turn a bishop's office into an adjunct of the district attorney's office, so the bishop becomes a kind of deputy DA and any allegation, no matter what its credibility or source, is turned over to civil authority.

    In trying to fix this mess, we can't forget the principles of natural justice and the principles of both civil and canon law. If there's one theme running through Cardinal Re's letter to Bishop Gregory, it's that we can't do this in a mechanical, simplistic way. There has to be room for the exercise of judgment and episcopal leadership.

    Allen: Canon law says before a permanent penalty can be imposed, a priest is entitled to a full ecclesial trial. Dallas makes no provision for that. That's one of the points where there's a clear conflict between Dallas and canon law.

    The confidentially issue is another. Canon law envisions that when an accusation is made against a priest, a bishop is to keep that in confidence until he has a chance to ascertain the merit of the accusation, and then make a decision about what level of public disclosure would be most helpful. Dallas has a different idea: as soon as an accusation is made, the bishop ought to turn it over to civil authorities and let them conduct an investigation. He may also conduct his own internal one, but it shouldn't interfere with the civil one. And should be cooperative with the media and requests for disclosure.

    How long does an ecclesial trial usually last? Is a priest put on leave while it happens?

    Allen: It tends to be a cumbersome, costly process. It can take years, depending on how many resources a priest wants to put into fighting it. When a bishop wants to impose a penalty on a priest, if the priest appeals that to Rome, canon law envisions that during the course of that appeal the priest should be allowed to continue in his assignment pending the outcome of his appeal. Or at least be allowed to function as a priest --a bishop can assign a priest wherever he wants, but can't arbitrarily remove him from ministry and kick him out of the priesthood.

    You've got 300 priests removed since the Dallas meeting in June--we know that many have appealed to Rome. We don't know how many, because unlike civil appeal, this is not a public document.

    If some bishops have fallen short in the past, is the Vatican concerned they will again?

    Weigel: A lot of people have learned a lot in the past 10 years. What we don't want to do is in fixing the problems of the past 25-30 years, put in place mechanisms that whittle away the authority and responsibility of the local bishop for the future. The bishop is the essential instrument in the authentically Catholic reform of the Church. It has to be that way. That's what the Catholic Church is. There's no way around that. Bishops have to reassert the legitimate authority that is theirs by ordination.

    What about bishops who did not take action after Dallas?

    Neuhaus: That gets back to the question of the oversight of the overseers. If it's not going to be done adequately by the National Review Board proposal of Dallas, there's got to be a new understanding. Clearly, there are some bishops who need to be held accountable for what they've done over the years. So far, I don't think we've been given any indication of how that question will be answered.

    Weigel: One thing that has to be reclaimed is the ancient Christian skill of fraternal correction. If people are convinced that their local bishop is being irresponsible, is avoiding a situation that desperately needs attention, they should go to the metropolitan archbishop, who needs to take responsibility for fraternally looking into the situation.

    Another question is, does the present Conference structure, which is heavily bureaucratic, create circumstances in which it's impossible for bishops to call each other to a more authentic exercise of their office.

    What do you propose?

    Weigel: Reexamine the process. Bishops have to stop thinking of themselves as a corporate body like a board of directors. They need far more time together in session

    What would you most like to see changed in the norms?

    Neuhaus: That bishops be bishops again. They created this mess--not all of them, of course--but the failure of episcopal oversight that let this crisis happen. They have to know there's no institutional fix or new set of norms or anything else that can take the place of their simply having the courage to make sure priests are faithful to the Church's teaching.

    Does the Vatican understand how its reaction will play in the United States?

    No. That's what I've heard from every knowledgeable person that I've talked to in Rome or has contacts in Rome. They think of it as a media frenzy. And I'm baffled that they're baffled. But for some reason that is what everyone says is their position.

    Neuhaus: I think most American Catholics have an enormous confidence in this Pope and in Rome's leadership. For the great majority of people, the fact that you have such a clear and focused involvement-cooperation between Rome and the U.S. Bishops will be powerfully reassuring.

    Allen: Vatican officials are eminently aware of how painful and difficult a situation this has been for the American Church. They know how important the commitment to getting all the abusers out of the priesthood is, and how important the idea of involving the laity is. They're trying to be a sensitive to that as they possibly can. Certainly the positive language at the beginning of Cardinal Re's letter reflects that. They understand how much most Americans want to see a strong lay role in this. On the other hand, they also believe in the bishop-priest relationship that the Church has nurtured and protected for 200 years, and they don't want to see that compromised.

    Is the Vatican digging in its heels?

    Hitchcock: I would guess to some extent. I guess you would have to say that the Vatican unfortunately sees the rights of accused priests as really taking priority over whatever harm may be done to the victims. The priority lies with the priests. That's what one has to acknowledge.

    Shouldn't the Vatican concerned about due process?

    Hitchcock: Those of us who don't see the church as a democracy haven't had any problem with that. I believe the church should use authoritative means of dealing with this problem.

    But isn't the Vatican already powerful and authoritative-even authoritarian?

    Hitchcock: The bishops are often characterized as toadies of the Vatican. Those of us who follow these things have never believed that is the case. Our attitude has been that the Vatican acts too little, too late. There's really very little enforcement power. Bishops are allowed to go on for years doing what they want to do until they reach the retirement age. So in a way this represents further indication the Vatican does not like to take strong measures. Now you might say this is a strong measure in the sense that it's undermining the bishops' announced policy. But there's a great reluctance to use disciplinary authority in the Vatican, so for all the talk about there being reactionary and authoritarian, there's a great reluctance to use authority. No bishop, for example, ever gets removed from office unless he's involved in a public scandal.

    Why is everyone so confused, and why are the responses all over the map?

    Hitchcock: You will find, I think, that this is an issue that doesn't break down along the usual liberal conservative lines. I don't think from the conservative point of view that we're being inconsistent because what we see in the pedophilia scandal is blatant disregard for church moral teaching, blatant misconduct by priests. Bishops have an obligation to do something about it; they don't. I believe part of the problem in American Catholicism has been bishops who've been too timid to act or have been sympathetic to the problem.

    Reese: The problem we face is that the church did such a bad job of addressing the sex abuse crisis in the past that it has very little credibility. So people-especially victims' groups and the media--are suspicious of any action that looks like it protects priests. At the same time, I think if you sit people down and say, "Shouldn't we have a process that protects priests from false accusations?" people will say, "Yeah." But people are simply suspicious of anything that looks like backtracking.

    Allen: The question is, What are bishops supposed to do now? Are they supposed to continue to implement Dallas exactly as it was written? Are they supposed to wait until this mixed commission does its work? Or are they supposed to pick and choose, saying "some elements of Dallas I like and will continue to apply, others I won't"?

    We've heard different things. Senior Vatican officials have been quoted both on and off the record in the last 48 hours, advising bishops not to proceed with the controversial points. On the other hand, we heard Bishop Gregory this morning saying no, no, this does not mean we're going to stop applying Dallas, we're going to continue.

    It's unclear. What's likely to happen is that different bishops will continue to do different things. In that sense, we're sort of back where we started.

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