Faced with millions of irate followers and a cascade of media scrutiny, the U.S. Catholic bishops were in what could only be described as a near-panic when they met in June to deal with the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
They frantically approved the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which created a "one strike, you're out" policy for getting rid of errant priests and also provided for new boards composed of lay people to evaluate allegations. At the time, many bishops were still defensive — sitting stone-faced through the meeting and ignoring reporter's questions — as they absorbed the full impact of the public's reaction.
But they may finally be coming to grips with their role in allowing the scandal to fester for 30 years. During their November meeting in Washington, bishop after bishop stood during debates to wrestle with forgiveness of priests, justice for victims, and accountability for themselves. There was even a fleeting mention of purgatory as an example of how sincerely reformed sinners must still pay a price for their misdeeds.
As expected, they approved a revised plan that provides for permanent removal from ministry of any priest found guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor. But they also passed a separate document dealing with their own accountability, which calls for the prelates to "fraternally correct" brother bishops who are not making the abuse rules stick.
Meanwhile, several bishops argued that the new plan will force a reckoning for each of them — because it makes them give up their decades-long practices of judging accused priests on a case-by-case basis and lessening punishments for priests they believed had reformed. Under the new plan, they must report all abuse cases to Rome and hold church trials.
Giving up this power is "the least we can do for having misused it before," said Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas. The church needs "strong, accurate, clear laws that will remove from us the kinds of biases that are human and real."
Before the June meeting, said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, he and other bishops hoped there might be a "possibility of a forgiveness" that would allow contrite priests to go back to their ministry. "We don't have that [possibility] anymore... it's important for us to understand that," McCarrick said.
"In limiting our own discretionary authority in this way," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said, "we find ourselves humbled as bishops and as servants of the Lord." Since "the overwhelming majority of cases — from 15, 20, or even 30 years ago — are not actionable in a criminal court," he said, "the importance of the church herself doing justice becomes ever more important."
Critics, naturally, don't see it this way. They contend the revised rules dilute the power of the lay review boards, created at the Dallas meeting, and still give individual bishops too much control over whether priests are suspended. They also say that church trials could "reimpose the shroud of pathological secrecy" on cases too old to prosecute in civil court, according to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer.
A New Reality