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U.S. Bishops Apologize for Scandal

Religion: Church confesses failures and vows reforms as Catholic prelates convene meeting on sex abuse. They hear from angry victims.

June 14, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — Confessing failure, the leader of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops opened a national meeting on priestly sex abuse Thursday by offering "the most profound apology" for derelict leadership, begged forgiveness and pledged to do penance by enacting tough reform measures.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, admitted that too often bishops were more worried about scandal than preventing abuse and too often had treated victims as "adversaries and not as suffering members of the church."

Gregory called on all victims of clergy abuse to report crimes committed against them, pledging the church's love and help in seeking justice. He also urged all abusive priests and bishops to step forward and confess their own crimes.

"This crisis is not about a lack of faith in God," Gregory said. "The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds.... Only by truthful confession, heartfelt contrition and firm purpose of amendment can we hope to receive the generous mercy of God and the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters."

Gregory's address, which drew a sustained standing ovation, set the tone for an opening session that featured testimony from sex-abuse victims and the strongest criticism of the elite body ever permitted at its national conference. The gathering, which many bishops described as the most morose and humiliating they had ever experienced, is devoted to the single issue of crafting what would be the American church's first mandatory national policy aimed at preventing clergy sex abuse against minors.

Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, called the day's events "absolutely unique and historic." In the two decades he has attended the bishops' conferences, he said, "I've never seen the bishops be so forthright in admitting what they did was wrong. Instead of sidestepping and legalese ... [Gregory] confessed the sins of the bishops publicly and promised he would make sure they would never do this again."

In the day's most emotional moments, four victims of priestly abuse tearfully shared their experiences and lasting scars to the full body of about 300 bishops--the first time victims had spoken to a full conference.

Craig Martin of Minnesota described the alcoholism, shattered self-esteem and aberrant sexual behavior that his abuse at 11 by his parish priest had triggered 35 years ago. Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher of Alaska, who was assaulted by a seminary student as a child, spoke of a nervous breakdown, suicidal thoughts and near divorce. Michael Bland of Chicago chronicled how abuse drove him out of the priesthood, even as the perpetrator is scheduled to teach at an unnamed national Catholic university.

And David Clohessy, the director of a national victims' advocacy group that has become the leading moral force for change, asked bishops to pass around a photo of a victim who committed suicide, Eric Patterson of Kansas, and offer prayers. Clohessy and other victims' groups have demanded the ouster of all priests who abuse children, the removal of bishops who reassign rather than dismiss perpetrators, and the opening of all financial and personnel records to scrutiny by law enforcement.

"Don't settle for cheap talk, grave expressions of concern, eloquent apologies, for pledges to do better," said Clohessy of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Hold out for the real thing. That's what our children deserve."

The bishops, appearing somber and spellbound, were dressed down by two lay leaders for their arrogance, lack of accountability and failure of moral authority.

Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame told the leaders that their negligence had placed at risk the church's moral and pastoral mission and sent tens of thousands of good priests reeling in shame and pain. He challenged bishops to "name the protection of abusive priests for what it is: a sin, born of the arrogance of power," and called on them to empower the laity, particularly women, with greater decision-making roles.

Several bishops said the powerful testimonies Thursday--along with the media glare of more than 700 reporters--appeared to be solidifying support for a "zero tolerance" policy that would oust from the priesthood any perpetrator of sexual abuse, past or present.

Last week, a committee of the bishops' conference issued a draft proposal to defrock any priest guilty of sexually abusing minors after the new policy takes effect. In a widely criticized loophole, however, the committee proposed that priests guilty of a single incident of abuse could be returned to ministry if they had sought psychological counseling, were found not to be pedophiles, and had the backing of a lay-dominated sexual-abuse committee.

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