After this week's Vatican sessions on clergy sex abuse, Southern California's Roman Catholic priests are urging their leaders to seize the historic moment. They want American bishops to debate not only abuse prevention but far-reaching reform measures, from healthier teachings on sexuality to more lay oversight of clergy personnel decisions.
America's cardinals, meeting with Vatican officials in Italy, called Wednesday for steps making it easier to defrock priests guilty of sexual abuse. But they disappointed many critics by stopping short of a "zero-tolerance" dismissal policy. That reluctance increased pressure on American bishops to formally adopt a more specific plan when they meet in Dallas in June.
Interviews with area priests, however, made it clear that far more was on their minds.
"This is the worst scandal since the Reformation," said Father John McAndrews, parochial vicar for St. Angela Merici Church in Brea. "This is the moment for reform."
Greater lay involvement in church affairs as a way to increase accountability seemed to top the list of their hopes for reform.
McAndrews said Diocese of Orange priests are discussing a proposal to place lay members for the first time on boards that hire and assign priests. Some Los Angeles clergy back that idea as well.
"If there had been more parents involved in the personnel process, nobody would have allowed priests accused of sex abuse to be reassigned," said Father David O'Connell of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church in Los Angeles.
Rome, however, has indicated less enthusiasm for empowering the laity than the American church. In 1997, for instance, Pope John Paul II approved measures to bar the laity from governing the church, preaching homilies, using the title "chaplain" and other duties. That occurred the same year that 500 Southern California priests unanimously decreed at a Palm Springs conference that the priest's most important role was to empower the laity.
In Dallas, the bishops are expected to discuss ways to beef up seminary admission requirements. O'Connell said he saw a need for wholesale changes in the way men are trained for the priesthood to counter "arrested psychosexual development," which has been cited as a contributing factor in numerous sex abuse cases.
Rather than a traditional seminary education, he said, candidates might spend most of their time working as student priests in parishes, taking courses at general colleges and receiving specialized training at diocese centers.
Beginning this year, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is requiring seminarians to spend a year working in parishes--an increase from the previous six-month requirement--before ordination. But O'Connell said more time in the trenches would help, especially at the front end of the training process.
"By interacting with parishioners and doing work in the parish, you might get a much faster maturing process than being in the rarefied seminary environment for four or five years," he said.
O'Connell added that in seminaries, "you can get much too clerical much too fast"--attached to the legalistic rules and hierarchical structures and roles of the church.
Father George O'Brien, a professor at Mount St. Mary's College in L.A., said he hopes the Dallas meeting will spark a "rethinking of the theology of sexuality."
O'Brien, who also serves at Good Shepherd Church in Beverly Hills, said sexuality has been presented through a "rather negative approach," as something to avoid--although the archdiocese today offers regular seminars on human sexuality that are more positive.
O'Brien said he hoped the bishops would take the discussions further and affirm sex as "God's great gift, and not something to be denied, repressed and hence made to come out in unhealthy ways."
Several priests agreed that uniform policies on sex abuse should be adopted throughout the nation and even the world. But they were less certain about Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's call for "zero tolerance"--the notion of ousting even those priests who had committed abuse decades ago and had stayed clean since.
If the primary concern is protecting children and youth from abusive priests, Mahony said Friday, "zero tolerance is the only answer. That's the only solution.... It doesn't get any more clear than that."
The zero-tolerance idea has deeply divided the church. The June bishops meeting is expected to struggle with the tension between protecting children and living up to the Christian notion of forgiveness.
McAndrews called zero tolerance the "ecclesiastical death penalty," adding: "The world wants these priests to cease to exist, but we don't believe in the death penalty."
In an interview Friday, Mahony outlined other issues expected to be considered in Dallas. They include a proposal for a special process to remove from the priesthood clerics determined to be a threat to children and youth--even if their cases are not "notorious"; and the creation of a national lay board to oversee issues of sexual misconduct.
In addition, Mahony said he will probably announce next week the appointment of two judges to head an expanded board to oversee sexual misconduct issues in the three-county Los Angeles archdiocese.
That board will be expanded to 15 members. He will also establish education programs for children in all the parishes, and he will create spiritual healing groups for victims of sexual abuse.
Mahony also said he sent a letter Thursday evening to all the parishes in Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties discussing some of the outcomes of his trip to the Vatican. He will include the pope's statement as well.
O'Connell said bishops meeting in Dallas should keep one point foremost in mind: "These decisions on how the church should change can't be made by just bishops and priests. They have to include the laity."