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The Bishops at Bay


The Critics

The nearly three hundred Catholic bishops of the United States who traveled to Dallas for their semiannual meeting, this June 13–15, were partly chastened in demeanor. It was oddly symbolic that, though they were given the extra courtesies that airlines have always shown the clergy, they were also subjected to the intense security checks that everyone undergoes in the wake of the Twin Towers disaster—the only special attention given them was a careful scanning of the large crucifix many wear on a chain around their necks. It is a new experience for some of them to be treated like ordinary people. Even the one bishop who came in luxury, in a private plane lent him by a benefactor whose identity is unknown, was not enjoying a special privilege but dodging a special threat. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, whose actions sparked the current outrage over reshuffled priests who have abused minors, did not want to be trapped in an airport or on a plane where he could be accosted, questioned, or publicly criticized. He travels with bodyguards in his hometown, and he sneaked off to Rome last spring by being driven south for five hours to an airport where he would not be recognized. (We learn this latter detail from Betrayal, the excellent account of Law’s troubles by the Boston Globe reporters who exposed them.)

The conduct of the bishops leading up to this meeting reminded me of lions in the similes of classical epic. Beset by dogs and hunters, crouching under the spears thrown, the lions draw back from one covert to another, lashing their tails, making swipes in the air with their claws, showing their teeth half in snarl and half in grin, steadily giving ground. Defense after defense failed the bishops—the claim that the problem of pedophile priests had been dealt with in 1992, that guidelines adopted then were adequate and adequately enforced, that all the cases were old, that the records had all been turned over, that journalists were making too much of the problem, that the criticisms were prompted by anti-Catholicism. Despite all these claims, the pedophile scandal spread, week after week, from Boston to every sector of the country. Two bishops in Florida and one in Kentucky resigned under accusations of being pedophiles themselves. Two others resigned for different sexual offenses. Over two hundred priests have been removed from the ministry since January.

The bishops were given a one-two punch at the very time when they were traveling to Dallas. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll showed that 89 percent of respondents believed that bishops who transferred pedophiles to new ministries should be removed from office, and the Dallas Morning News found, in a diocese-by-diocese rundown, that two thirds of the bishops had done just that. The very format of the Dallas paper’s report was devastating—the record of 112 bishops was spread over five full pages, with photographs of most of the bishops lined up like a rogues’ gallery of episcopal crime. The pictures gave arriving journalists the best handy tool for linking names with faces as the men in black bustled or sauntered through the corridors of the Fairmont Hotel, where the meeting was taking place. The same issue of the paper had a column by the editor of D [for Dallas] Magazine calling on all the bishops to resign, as an expression of their corporate responsibility for decades of protecting the abuse of Catholic minors. Even the two loyal Catholic lay persons chosen to address the bishops would excoriate them all as participants in a corrupt system. The sheep were rebuking the shepherds, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

For if a priest be fall’n, in whom we trust,
What wonder if profaner men should rust?
A fallen priest, ‘tis shame to think upon—
Sheep with clean wool, their shepherd shitted-on.

There seemed little reason to expect the bishops to take measures in Dallas that would restore the trust they had forfeited. An April meeting of US cardinals with the Pope had raised hopes for a solution to the problem of sexual abuse, but it dashed those hopes by releasing a document that proposed to remove from the clerical state “a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of repeated and aggressive sexual abuse of minors.”2 The Vatican was astonished that this statement was taken as a license for the pedophiles, not a ban on them.

The bishops’ record for doing and saying the wrong thing was extended when a draft document for the Dallas meeting was released, one that exempted priests from dismissal if they had committed only one offense long ago. Jay Leno joked that the bishops were giving such men “only one freebie, so I hope it was a cute one.” Barbara Blaine, a leader of the group SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), noted that Bobby Frank Cherry had recently been convicted for a church bombing that occurred forty years ago in Birmingham, and “he has not bombed a single church since then.” So—by the standards American bishops set for their priests—he should go free.

On the very eve of the meeting in Dallas, the bishops seemed to be up to their old self-defeating tricks when they canceled a promise to let representative victims of priestly crime address the session. They used as their excuse the fact that SNAP had joined a lawsuit calling for the end of past confidentiality agreements entered into by dioceses that settled claims against their priests. In negotiations with the bishops, Peter Isely of SNAP asked the lawyer for the bishops’ conference if that suit posed any legal bar to hearing from the victims, and the lawyer, Mark Chopko, said it did not. But SNAP saved the bishops from themselves by withdrawing from the suit anyway. If the ban on their appearance had stood, the whole meeting would have been doomed.

The ad hoc committee that had drafted the proposals for Dallas met secretly with leaders of SNAP and the other main victims’ group, Survivors of Clergy Abuse Linkup, on the day before the formal opening of the conference. The survivors were told that their appearance before the body of the bishops was being reconsidered. The victims then met in private session with four cardinals—they had invited all eight cardinals active in the United States, though only four accepted their invitation. In the Dallas meeting, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, thinking he was showing concern for the stories of abuse, said that they moved him because he had never heard from a victim before (though one of the victims present had repeatedly tried to reach him in Philadelphia). Participants in the meeting said that the other cardinals, especially Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, were made uncomfortable by Bevilacqua’s insensitivity. At the press conference held after the meeting, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington went out of his way to say that he had met with many victims. But McCarrick, who is a smooth political operator, had himself not entirely mastered the appropriate language. When he blamed the Church crisis on “a few very sick and mixed-up priests,” one of the victims on the dais with him, Mark Seranno, interrupted to say that systematic cover-up was the real source of the crisis, not “a few bad apples.” After years of struggle on such points, entrenched attitudes keep showing up in even the brightest of the conference members.

Two of the SNAP leaders, Peter Isely and David Clohessy, left the meeting with the cardinals before it ended, out of fear that they would be ushered away from reporters. When they slipped into the huge press room (accommodating over seven hundred journalists for this event), reporters formed a tight knot around them, firing questions. SNAP fears about access to the press were justified by the anger of a leonine monsignor, Francis Maniscalco, who was handling press relations for the bishops. Prowling around the edges of the journalistic huddle, obviously displeased that an unauthorized press conference was taking place, he muttered loudly that the two men were rude to have left the meeting early. When Bevilacqua’s words were reported, the monsignor roared that Bevilacqua should be allowed to speak for himself.

The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw
And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage
To be o’erpowered.

(Richard II, 5.1.29–31)

In a secret session Wednesday night, the bishops decided that they would let four victims speak to them in the opening Thursday session. These speakers were preceded by the two lay persons the bishops had invited to address them—Scott Appleby, the head of the leading center for the study of American Catholic history (the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame), and Margaret Steinfels, editor of the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal. The victims’ reports were followed by a harrowing account of the impact of clerical abuse by Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, executive director of the Trauma Treatment Center at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis. No veteran reporter of the bishops’ semiannual meetings could remember their ever being publicly addressed by members of the laity—yet here were seven lay persons directing the most withering criticism at the bishops in a televised session. Things had certainly changed.

Appleby and Steinfels, though they did not write their statements in concert, agreed nonetheless on three main points:

(1) The crisis in the American Catholic Church is not confined to the single matter of sexual abuse, and cannot be allayed simply by addressing that problem. It is, said Appleby, just one manifestation (though a grisly one) of “a closed clerical culture that infects the priesthood,” a priesthood that has “been made vulnerable to the unstable and to the immoral.”

(2) The crisis is caused by a total breakdown in accountability of the hierarchy to the laity. As Steinfels put it:

The dam has broken—a reservoir of trust among Catholics has run dry. This scandal has brought home to lay people how essentially powerless they are to affect its outcome—and virtually anything else to do with the church. When we ask, “What can I do?” what lay person isn’t brought up short in realizing, forty years after Vatican II with its promise of consultation and collaboration, that our only serious leverage is money? That in itself is a scandal.

(3) This breakdown stems from systemic corruption in the hierarchy, a corruption caused by secrecy, denial, clerical self-protectiveness, and docility to Vatican directives that ban openness. Steinfels castigated a “lack of candor, honesty, integrity,” a “silent and passive acquiescence in Vatican edicts and understandings that you know to be contrary to your own pastoral experience.” Appleby urged the bishops “to formulate policies that make the most sense of this [American] environment, without anticipating how the Vatican might respond.”


The Charter

Never before had these men been forced to sit still for such a tongue-lashing—and it must have been particularly galling, for officials who like to whisper directives in their own sacred chambers, to have such bitter medicine administered in public. But they grimly endured it, and the debate that followed showed that at least some of the bishops had finally “got it.” Each attempt to water down the main document they were to vote on (called the Charter) was defeated with the argument that “the people expect more of us.” The exemption for a single past offense had been removed even before the debate began. The broadest possible definition of sexual abuse, one based on a document issued by Canada’s bishops, was adopted. This defined as abuse any adult’s manipulation of a minor to achieve his or her own sexual gratification, even if that does not involve force, genital contact, or the adult’s making the first overture. Several bishops wanted to limit the definition to genital contact; but under that definition, a priest could kiss a minor on the lips, ply the child with pornography or obscene phone calls, yet be innocent of any abuse. The narrower definition would be laxer on the treatment of minors than are many laws against sexual harassment of adults.

  1. 1

    The Canterbury Tales, Prologue, 501– 504, partly modernized. (The final line in the original is “A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.”)

  2. 2

    Text in Giovanni Marchesi, S.J., “La chiesa cattolica negli Stati Uniti scossa dallo scandalo della pedofilia,” Civiltà Cattolica, June 1, 2002, pp. 419–522: “dimissione dallo stato clericale di un sacerdote che è diventato notorio ed è colpevole dell’abuso sessuale ripetuto e aggressivo di minori.”

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