Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Catholic Bishops Meet: "800-Pound Gorilla" Gathers with Them, According to David Gibson

At the end of last week, I linked to a powerful statement of journalist Susan Hogan reminding us that, ten years ago this month--a month in which the U.S. Catholic bishops are now staging shock-and-awe "religious freedom" demonstrations around the nation--the bishops were gathered in Dallas to deal with the explosive situation that had developed as Boston court actions blew the lid off the cover-up of childhood clerical abuse in the Catholic church.  Hogan notes that the bishops now want to flex their muscle and appear powerful as they try to topple a sitting Democratic president (the bit about toppling the president is me speaking, not Hogan), but ten years ago the situation was very different.  

Then, the bishops felt themselves besieged.  They were hunkered down, on the defensive, dodging reporters at the Dallas meeting.  Just as they arrived in Dallas for their 2002 meeting, the local paper published an exposé piece providing documentation to show that two-thirds of sitting bishops had shielded a priest they had reason to know was abusing children.  The article was accompanied with pictures of each bishop discussed in this survey.

For the public at large and for many lay Catholics, the revelation that a full two-thirds of the sitting U.S. bishops had shielded a known molester of minors was shocking in the extreme.  Some of us saw in the gallery of faces in the Dallas paper our own bishops or bishops we knew personally.  

When I saw the face of a bishop who had caused quite a bit of misery to my partner Steve and me by refusing tenure to Steve when this bishop was a seminary rector (though the faculty and students of the seminary had voted strongly for Steve's tenure), I wrote to ask him how he could make the lives of lay theologians who were trying to serve the church so miserable, while protecting priests abusing children.  He wrote back a hot response telling me that the media lie and he had been lied about in the article in question, and that I was insolent to send such a letter to him, a rising young star among the bishops of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

To say that the bishops did not welcome the negative media coverage in Dallas in 2002--did not welcome being exposed--would be a vast understatement.  The bishops went into damage control at the Dallas meeting, and the result of the meeting was a zero-tolerance policy about abuse that, we lay Catholics were assured, would end the abuse problem.  And we've been assured over and over since that time that the zero-tolerance policy has worked, and that clerical abuse of minors is largely a thing of the past in the American Catholic church.

Now the bishops are on the verge of meeting again in Atlanta a decade later, and the same question keeps arising among American Catholics and the public at large: what are the bishops doing, what do they intend to do, to deal with an abuse situation that we all know is not by any means over yet?  As Jerry Slevin's series of hard-hitting statements about the Philadelphia case at this blog site (the latest in the series is here) relentlessly remind us, despite the bishops' media spin-campaign, the zero-tolerance policy has not worked.  Abuse continues and continues to be hidden by sitting bishops.

It continues and continues to be hidden because no policies and procedures have been set into place that police the policemen, the bishops themselves, who are assuring us they have things under control.  As Anne Burke, who previously chaired the bishops' National Review Board, has just told the media in Chicago,* the zero-tolerance policy was fundamentally "window-dressing" policy that was all about image management and spin control and not really about policing the policemen in the least: Burke states, 

The [zero-tolerance] strategy is not unlike politics. Let’s get into the war room. Let’s think about what we have to do with damage control.

And as David Gibson notes, as the bishops now gather in Atlanta, an 800-pound gorilla in the chancery will gather along with them: the question of accountability for the bishops themselves.  Gibson enumerates the very compelling reasons all of us concerned to see the abuse situation dealt with honestly and effectively continue to have to think the situation is not being dealt with adequately--is, indeed, still being covered up in many places:  

  • Several years after the Dallas charter was adopted, Chicago Cardinal Francis George left two priests in ministry despite multiple credible allegations of abuse against them and recommendations by his review board that the men be removed. Nonetheless, in 2007 George was elected to a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  • Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who was widely seen as the villain of the scandal that erupted in Boston in 2002, was given a plum job in Rome after he resigned in disgrace and he continues to enjoy the perks of a Vatican sinecure.
  • Last year, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., was charged with failing to report credible allegations that one of his priests had a trove of child pornography and a suspicious interest in young children. Finn is set to go on trial in September and could become the first bishop ever convicted of a crime in connection with the scandal. Even so, he remains a bishop in good standing in the church.
  • Bishops in Baker, Ore., and Lincoln, Neb., have refused to allow the annual mandated audits to ensure compliance with the hierarchy's own policies. Those bishops have not been reprimanded, and last year, Pope Benedict XVI promoted the Oregon bishop, Robert Vasa, to a bigger diocese.
  • The quality of the diocesan review boards varies widely, and in many cases the recommendations of the board are either ignored or the board is kept in the dark about allegations. That's what happened in Kansas City and in Philadelphia, where allegations were withheld from the oversight boards.

And so he concludes, 

When the bishops gather June 13-15 in Atlanta on the 10th anniversary of the Dallas charter, they will hear a progress report from the National Review Board and recommendations for further action. Some are hopeful that those suggestions might include measures for policing the bishops. But it would still be up to the bishops themselves to give those policies some teeth.

And he's correct.

*Thanks to Jerry Slevin for information about this interview.

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