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Not Even the Pope Can End the Sex Abuse Scandal

April 19, 2002|ANDREW M. GREELEY | Father Andrew M. Greeley, a priest and sociologist in Chicago, is the author, most recently, of "Irish Stew!" (Tor Books, 2002).

As Pope John Paul II assembles the American cardinals in Rome, cries are heard around the land for the Catholic Church to recover its credibility as a moral teacher in the wake of the sex abuse scandal.

Unfortunately, the church in its present form cannot. Still, it is clear from surveys that Catholics are not leaving the church, that those who plan to cut their contributions are those who go to church rarely and don't contribute much, and that in general Catholics trust their priests and approve of their pastors.

They have, however, lost confidence in their bishops. When this media feeding frenzy finally ends, will much have changed? A harmless and mostly irrelevant statement will emerge from Rome. Most bishops no longer will reassign sex abusers, though some might, confident that they can get away with it.

At their own meeting in Dallas in June, the bishops probably will issue a number of statements expressing sorrow and promising that it won't happen again. The Vatican will continue to express "sadness."

Such pro forma statements are not likely to satisfy the four out of five Catholics who are disturbed by the bishops' handling of child abuse.

The credibility of the leadership of the Catholic Church will continue to be weak. No bishop is likely to lose his job. After all, as Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law has argued in self-defense, his big mistake was not to keep better records.

Hilaire Belloc, the English Catholic writer of the first half of the last century, once remarked that an institution that can survive such knavish imbecility must have special protection from God.

There are a number of reasons why the U.S. bishops are incapable of responding effectively. They are a collegium in which no one has central authority, either by canon law as do the "primates" in countries such as Ireland and Poland or by experience and force of character. So any statements they might make will necessarily be pegged at the lowest common denominator of the group.

Moreover, for many of them credibility is not a problem. No matter what the media say, they still are bishops, they still have power and authority, they still are accountable only to God and to Rome and not to their people, much less to the media.

Finally, many of them are not really prepared to admit even to themselves that they are guilty of great moral evil. They have cooperated in the rape of the innocent, yet they have a wide variety of excuses for what happened and people to blame--the media, the victims, the lawyers. Perhaps they even believe that Jesus, who loved little children, will accept their excuses. There is no one in their inner circles to say bluntly to them, "You have sinned and you must do penance." Bishops don't do penance. Rather, they rally 'round and denounce abortion, as though they are without sin.

The Vatican will continue to fall back, as clerics of all denominations are inclined to do, on stereotypes and cliches: Americans are a sex-crazed people, it's all about money and (naturally) the media created the problem.

It's easy to deploy those stereotypes because the inhabitants of the Vatican, like most Europeans, are anti-American. One almost can hear them saying, "America is not our most serious problem."

Thus the church, nationally and internationally, is organized in such a way that it cannot respond to the abuse problem in ways that its American members want it to. Unless the meeting of cardinals in Rome is far more successful than there is any good reason to expect, there will be no endgame for this most recent wave of scandals. The crisis will not conclude, it will not end. It will simply stop--when the media find another target.

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