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.

Other bishops objected to the idea of turning over any allegation of abuse to the civil authorities. Thomas Doran of Rockford, Illinois, said the bishops must not “rat out our priests.” But Mark Chopko, the general counsel of the bishops’ conference, who was sitting on the floor to expound civil law, said that most states had adopted or would adopt laws that required this kind of reporting from teachers and social workers. Could priests be seen as free of the requirement that lay teachers in Catholic schools submit to? Cardinal Mahony noted that he had been twice accused of molesting minors and was happy to have the civil authorities dispose quickly of those false allegations. Justin Rigali of St. Louis agreed that reporting to the civil authorities, who are better at investigating criminal allegations, “can be an advantage to our priests.”

Still other bishops wanted to restore the exemption for priests who had committed only one act of abuse in the past and sincerely repented of it. Why should their whole lives be affected by a single act? Joseph Galante, the coadjutor bishop of Dallas, answered that question for several of us journalists after the public meeting. Recalling the horrors related by Dr. Frawley-O’Dea, he said, “The victim’s whole life has been affected, why should the priest’s not be?” In the public meeting itself, Francis DiLorenzo said that certain social taboos disqualify a person from holding any position of honor—murder, incest, cannibalism, and child abuse among them. He struck a note that too few had struck—that the issue is not simply one of forgiving a sinner but of maintaining the honor of the priesthood and of the Church. In the fifth century, Saint Augustine said that any priest in his monastery who lied about his vows would be forgiven his sin if he sincerely repented, but “he shall not be a cleric so long as I am a bishop.”3 Augustine would today be called an advocate for “zero tolerance.”

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati beat back all attempts to soften the document by saying that the body could no longer be seen as maneuvering for “wiggle room.” When it was proposed to report only “credible” allegations to civil authorities, it was Law himself who rose to oppose that, successfully. It seemed that most of those taking a hard line—not only Pilarcszyk, but Mahony, McCarrick, Egan, George, Law—were in the Dallas paper’s rogues’ gallery. Had they learned the hard way not to hang on to questionable underlings? The hard line seemed to sweep to a convincing victory when the final vote for the Charter went 239 for, only 13 against. (It required 190 votes to pass by the required two thirds.)

Then, in a brilliant stroke, the Catholic governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, was introduced at the last session to assume personal leadership of an oversight committee for policing the enforcement of the Charter. He spoke of other members already appointed—Robert Bennett, the Washington lawyer, Anne Burnett, a Chicago judge—and explained that victims would be represented on the committee, and that it would make criminal referrals of anyone (including bishops) found sheltering suspects of child abuse. This sent a clear signal that the Charter had already gone into effect, immediately after the vote on it. The effect aimed at was one of decisive and final action, after all the prior evasions.

But what of the call by Appleby and Steinfels for the bishops to stand up to the Vatican’s directives, which had encouraged resistance to accountability in the past? Thomas Reese, the Jesuit editor of America magazine, who wrote the most respected account of how the Vatican operates, Inside the Vatican,4 told journalists that in all his years of attending these meetings, “this is the first time they were not continually looking over their shoulders for Rome’s reaction.” They were too busy fighting off assaults from the laity. In fact, they made one gutsy move for which they got little credit in the press. Most reporting from Dallas talked as if the Charter were being submitted to Rome for approval. That was not true. The new term, “Charter,” was invented for a document that was a voluntary commitment by the bishops to each other. Since it was not drafted as Church law, it could be observed immediately on the basis of each bishop’s agreement to act in his own sphere just as his brother bishops were doing in theirs. What was submitted to Rome was an entirely different document, called the Norms. This described the bishops’ policy as conforming to canon law, and asked that it be given the status of “positive law.” In effect, the bishops were playing a game of chicken with Rome, saying, “We had to put this policy into effect, it was the least our people would accept from us, and it will be operating while you look at canon law procedures.” They were daring Rome to rescind a policy adopted by an overwhelming number of the bishops in response to an overwhelming number of Catholics demanding it.

To understand the risk involved in the Dallas strategy, one must recall the drumbeat of signals coming from Rome urging the bishops not to “give in” to the press or to prosecutors seeking to punish priests:

In February, Tarcisio Bertone, the close associate of (and occasional spokesperson for) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the magazine 30 Giorni that the civil authority has no right to demand that a bishop turn over his own priest.5

On April 23, the Pope urged the United States cardinals in Rome to remember that offending priests may experience “the force of Christian conversion, that radical determination to turn from sin and return to God, which reaches the depths of the hu-man soul and can work an uncommon alteration.”6

On April 29, Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, addressing the Catholic University of Milan, said that the press in Americahad prodded bishops into making unwarranted settlements against the Church, which has no obligation to turn priests over to the secular authorities.7

On May 16, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, often mentioned as a candidate for the papacy, at a press conference in Rome, compared the treatment of Cardinal Law to Communist trials, Decius’s persecution of Christians, and the tactics of Hitler and Stalin. He said he would be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of his priests, and that priests should be pastors, not agents of the CIA or FBI.8

On May 19, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a Jesuit canon law expert and judge on a Vatican court, the Signatura Apostolica, wrote in Civiltà Cattolica that any priest’s privacy should not be invaded by a requirement to take psychological testing, and that a bishop who is convinced that an offending priest has reformed may assign him to a new parish without telling those at his new post.9

On June 1, the Jesuit priest Giovanni Marchesi wrote in Civiltà Cattolica that the Pope had shown courage in publicly addressing the pedo-phile problem, and that the press had taken unfair advantage of his openness to indulge in “a morbid and scandal-mongering inquisitiveness.” The press was trying to get even, said Father Marchesi, for the Pope’s criticism of the Gulf War, rather than addressing real problems in the world, like the crisis in the Middle East.10

On June 10, a favorite of the Pope, recently made a cardinal by him, the Jesuit Avery Dulles, warned the bishops not to take positions in Dallas that the Pope would just have to reverse.11 Dulles is not a bishop, so he did not have a vote in Dallas, but he was allowed to sit on the floor by courtesy of the bishops, and he rose to attack the Charter before the bishops voted on it—he opposed the broad definition of sexual abuse, the “adversarial” relationship the Charter would create between bishops and priests, the “unconscionable” requirement to report alle-gations to civil authorities, and the willingness to open diocesan files even “without legal compulsion.”

This rumble of voices from Rome made absolutely clear how the belief in a sacrosanct clerical status, one immune to outside control, led to the cover-up of priests’ crimes for so long. When John Kennedy was running for president, old charges made by Paul Blanshard (in his book American Freedom and Catholic Power) were revived—that Catholics do not feel themselves bound to observe the laws that bind other citizens of the United States. Were Blanshard alive now, he would find ample justification for his charge in the position the Vatican has expressed continually and shrilly in recent months. The bishops in Dallas had to be aware that Rome would not approve of what they were doing; but demands made on them by the laity made it impossible for them to do otherwise. In fact, most Catholics still think they did not do enough. The bishops had taken public criticism, apologized to victims (through their spokesman, the conference president Wilton Gregory), ignored Rome’s signals, called in a tough lay committee to police their actions, pledged “transparency” in all future dealings with allegations of sexual abuse—yet the response was one of overwhelming disappointment. That shows how far behind the curve of opinion within the body of the faithful the bishops remain. They have so much catching up to do that almost any efforts now are seen as inadequate.


The Response

A Washington Post poll published a week after the Dallas conference showed that only 3 percent of Catholics thought the bishops had gone too far, while 66 percent said that they had not gone far enough in addressing the pedophile problem.12 An ABC News poll from the same time showed that though 77 percent of Catholics had expected the Dallas meeting to “produce improvements,” only 44 percent thought that it had done so.13 A Dallas Morning News poll of Texans showed that 95 percent of Catholics thought all allegations of sexual abuse should be reported to the authorities.14 A Zogby national poll found that an amazing 96 percent of Catholics said bishops who do not remove pedophiles should be disciplined by the Pope.15 That is as close to unanimity as you can get in the Catholic community.

Journalists were puzzling over the fact that left and right were united in condemning the bishops. They had different reasons, of course. Some on the right wanted all gay priests removed (a position Avery Dulles hinted at). Some on the left wanted deeper reforms in the priesthood, including a change from mandatory to voluntary celibacy and the admission of women. Vatican spokesmen called this “opportunism,” using the scandal to push reforms already popular with lay Catholics. Over and over we were told that the pedophile scandal had nothing to do with celibacy. But how can anyone think that the callousness toward children would have reached such a level if priests’ wives or women priests had been involved in those children’s treatment, or if the bishops themselves had children who were abused or threatened with abuse? The Dallas paper’s poll found that 51 percent agreed that the pedophile scandal is connected with mandatory celibacy, while only 38 percent disagreed. A poll of Canadians found that 52 percent considered celibacy the cause of sexual abuse.16

The most common complaint about the bishops’ action was that it left their own ranks unscathed. How can a bishop tell a priest he must give up his ministry for one offense when the bishop himself has covered up many offenses? The bishops rightly said that they have no authority over each other. That had been surrendered to a centralizing pope. The Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965 encouraged increased action of bishops in their national conferences and in international synods. But the Vatican has denied the power of the former and rigged the meetings of the latter. In 1965, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that the bishops’ national conferences were “the best means of concrete plurality in unity.”17 They showed that “the church is essentially plural.”18 But when some European conferences began to consider on their own questions like mandatory celibacy, Ratzinger switched his stand, declaring in 1985 that these gatherings “have no theological basis.”19

The Pope endorsed the latter position in a 1998 document, Apostolos Suos.20 John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, traces in his book on the next conclave the way the Pope has rendered bishops impotent in area after area—the framing of liturgy in their languages, the use of deacons and lay assistants, the direction of seminaries and universities. The Pope has made a mockery of the Vatican Council’s call for the collegial sharing of authority. He has reduced the bishops to papal errand boys, given rein to act only when running their appointed errands. This leaves them with little they can do except engage, as Cardinal Law did, in Stakhanovite efforts against abortion laws. The Boston Globe reporters quote Thomas P. O’Neill III, the son of the late Speaker of the House, as saying, “Cardinal Law came in here [to Boston] and judged people and politicians on one issue: abortion.” The Cardinal was too deeply engaged with the fate of the unborn to find time to care for the born minors being abused by his priests.

Catholics are right to wonder if these men, chosen for docility to the role assigned them from Rome, have the nerve to stick by the pledge they made in Dallas. Already, some bishops are saying that their “zero tolerance” policy is subject to exceptions and fuzzinesses. At the airport leaving Dallas, I talked with the affable bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, Daniel Reilly, and asked what he would do with his priests accused of sexual abuse. “That is not at all clear,” he said—though the point of the Charter, according to Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the conference who steered it to passage, was to give a very clear message, with no “wiggle room.” Priests are already challenging the bishops who try to remove them, appealing to Rome. In the Chicago dioceses alone, five priests are protesting their removal, even one who admits to past abuse. Chicago’s Cardinal George, who took a hard line during the debates over the Charter, said he is supporting the appeal of the five.

Thirteen bishops voted against the charter. Since it does not have the force of law, but is just a voluntary agreement on each bishop’s part, the thirteen are not bound by it. Others voted for the Charter with great and manifest reluctance. Cardinal Bevilacqua said that he would vote for the Charter, though “I wish I didn’t have to.” Others said they would vote for the document “despite its flaws.” Cardinal Egan of New York said that the law now requires that the bishops do no preliminary checking of an allegation’s validity, but just turn it over and then wait for the civil authority to rule. “It’s outrageous that this is the way it works,” he said, “but this is the way it works.”

On the morning after the conference, I walked through the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which was heavily dotted with aging men in black. They looked more hapless and adrift than any group I could imagine of a comparable status, businessmen, professionals, or academicians. A few jostled and joshed each other into the first-class lounge. Some were talking to each other. But most sat alone, waiting for delayed flights, staring into space or looking at CNN on the TV monitors. I sat across from one bishop who spent a half-hour working his way through the Dallas Morning News. There were only two stories on the conference; but he went straight through the whole paper—sports, business, and all. Then, for a while, he sat with a vacant look. Finally, he started reading the paper all over again.

I was surprised, reflecting back on the formal and informal sessions of this conference—and then not surprised after all—to find that three of those criticizing the bishops most energetically had also expressed pity for them: Jason Berry, the journalist who broke the first main story on priest-pedophiles in the 1980s; Tom Fox, the editor of the National Catholic Reporter; and Scott Appleby, who asked in the opening day’s opening address, “Why would anyone in his right mind want to be a Catholic bishop today?”

These are clearly company men—which is what got them into their current scrape—and the company is not making it easy for them to get out of the scrape. It is a measure of the current desperation that even they, at last, see that they must address the concerns of the laity. The happy side of the current crisis is the fact that lay persons have successfully demanded such accountability. It is not a demand that will go away or one that can be neglected. Had the Pope died a year ago, or even half a year ago, those meeting to choose his successor might have thought that his term had been a success, that things could be left to travel along in the same track. It is impossible to think that now. Liberal Catholics have long been disappointed in him. But now, even conservative Catholics know that something has gone terribly wrong with the Church.

Taping the show Uncommon Knowledge for PBS, two staunch conservatives recently called the Pope’s reign a failure. Joseph Fessio, S.J., a student of Cardinal Ratzinger and his publisher in America, said that the Pope has not governed the Church well. Rod Dreher, who writes on religion for National Review, said that the next pope should dismiss all the American bishops, those mainly appointed by John Paul II, for failing in their duty. Father Fessio said that only lay Catholics who accept the Pope’s teaching on, for instance, contraception, should serve on lay advisory boards to future bishops—which means that they would have to be drawn from a pool of 20 percent or less of the Catholic body. That is clearly not going to happen.

For many reasons, the glow is going off this Pope. When Canadians were asked in May if they were anticipating the pontiff’s upcoming trip there, less than 40 percent expressed any interest at all, and 60 percent of the Catholics said that he should have resigned by now.21 The agenda of the Second Vatican Council, on hold during the term of John Paul II, will be resumed after his death or resignation, making for more accountability in the Church. The American bishops have come to recognize this fact. That is the long-term meaning of the Dallas Charter.

July 18, 2002

This Issue

August 15, 2002