Panelists: Bishops' response fell short

Author: Ed Cohen

The zero-tolerance policy and other measures agreed upon by U.S. bishops meeting in Dallas in June 2002 received marks of “unsatisfactory” from church scholars who spoke at a public miniconference on campus in October, four days before the Vatican rejected elements of the policies.

The speakers — five Notre Dame faculty and a Catholic journalist — were asked to talk about ways to restore trust in the church in the wake of the priest sex-abuse scandal. Their suggestions included far greater lay oversight of church operations; spiritual renewal; better screening of priest candidates; and more preparation for a life of celibacy.

“There was no preparation for celibacy, none,” Father Richard McBrien recalled of his own seminary experience in the 1960s. “The most you did was joke.”

McBrien, an ND professor of theology and a prominent author and commentator on church history and issues, said seminary life has improved some in recent years. But the norm is still for candidates to be educated and spiritually formed while being forced to live in close quarters for four to six years during what he called “one of most psychologically formative” periods of life.

“It is at the very least difficult to develop into a sexually integrated human being under circumstances of that sort,” McBrien said, and cited a psychological study sponsored by the U.S. bishops in the early 1970s that came to the same conclusion.

McBrien also said he knew from seminary in Boston most of the priests mentioned in regard to the “aberrations.”

“It’s sad to contemplate, but I know the seminary system out of which they came. They were not encouraged in this line of activity, but neither were they prepared nor properly screened for priestly ministry.”

Like other speakers, McBrien said the core problem in the scandal was the lack of accountability for the bishops, which allowed some to transfer known abusers from parish to parish and arrange secret hush-money settlements to victims and their families.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of the Catholic lay magazine Commonweal, said the scandal demonstrated the need for the laity to have more meaningful involvement in financial, legal and other areas of church administration. She said such existing groups as parish and diocesan councils could function to restore accountability in this way, but that lay people who’ve offered the bishops help and counsel continue to be told to “shut up and go home.”

“Who could have guessed that this is where we’d be 40 years after Vatican II?”

Steinfels was one of two lay Catholics to address the nearly 300 U.S. bishops who convened in Dallas, the other was R. Scott Appleby ’78, Notre Dame history professor and director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. She described the experience as “awesome” but only in the sense of something that has the power to inspire dread.

Like others, she accused the bishops of caving in to public pressure with the zero-tolerance policy, and said this had left the overwhelming majority of priests who were innocent of wrongdoing feeling abandoned by the bishops.

Gerald V. Bradley, ND professor of law, said Dallas restored calm, put out the media fire and had bad priests “on the run.” But he said the bishops failed to address what he called the “crisis of episcopal leadership.”

Safeguards the bishops adopted — such as requiring two adults to be present in any situation with minors and having procedures to investigate accusations of sex abuse — merely bring the church up to date with such organizations as the Boy Scouts and YMCA, Bradley said.

“Before Dallas the bishops behaved as bad managers, bad supervisors, as bad men. At Dallas they resolved to behave a bit more as decent men do,” the law professor said. “But . . . there is nothing distinctly episcopal in this picture, nothing about bishops as bishops, as pastors.”

Father Brian Daley, S.J., professor of theology at Notre Dame, said the church needs to move away from a culture where self-promotion and self-protection prevail and clerics look on themselves as a “class” and their work as a “career track.” Pastors and bishops need a different kind of self-understanding, he said.

“People who are not simply informed, who are not simply company men; people who are genuinely interested in pastoral ministry and . . . service in a self-effacing way; people who are capable of heroic risks in proclaiming the gospel.”

The harshest criticism of church policies and hierarchy came from Mary Rose D’Angelo, ND associate professor of theology, who said the most troubling “sex scandal” in the church wasn’t the abuse of children by priests. She said it was the church’s inability to promote the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, especially in the Africa, where the disease has reached catastrophic levels.

She echoed the other speakers’ calls for bishops to listen to victims and their supporters, institute transparency in diocesan finances and ensure due process for all involved, including accused priests. But she encouraged the laity to press their demands.

“It is time to stop conceding that the church is not a democracy. Insofar as that statement is true, it should be seen as a problem, not an axiom.”

The conference was sponsored by the Church Study Committee appointed last spring by Father Malloy in response to the scandal. The group of 11 faculty and administrators sent a 14-page letter of reflections and recommendations to the bishops prior to the Dallas meeting. The committee consulted privately with bishops on campus in November 2002.