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…

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