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Clergy Faces Its Demons --and a Test


DALLAS — By any measure, the scene that unfolded at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting Thursday had all the marks of a historic turning point in how the long-defensive church confronts its sexual abuse crisis.

Never before had victims of abuse by priests confronted the bishops as a whole with agonizing personal stories of betrayal and trauma when they were minors.

Never before had the bishops been told to their faces by victims, Catholic scholars and priests alike that bishops--not only priest offenders--must be held accountable for ignoring pleas for help, covering up for abusive priests and allowing them to continue to minister and molest.

And never before had the bishops, chastened and humbled by scandal, seemed so ready to accept responsibility for a decades-long sexual abuse crisis that has built to a crescendo in the last six months.

Thursday's gathering was a kind of collective exorcism: The 300 bishops dared to confront their own demons, as if they might purge them from within. They listened to several victims--their voices choking, their eyes moist--speak of their pain in detail so graphic that in any other circumstance it would have bordered on the pornographic.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the bishops conference, said flatly, "What we are facing is not a breakdown in belief, but a rupture in our relationship as bishops with the faithful.... We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or God forbid--with knowledge--who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to committees where they continued to abuse."

The real test of whether bishops mean what they say will come not only with today's vote on the church's first national policy to deal with sexual abuse. Equally important will be the years ahead, as they demonstrate how faithful they can be in carrying out the policy. Still, Gregory's speech--coming from a bishop in a church known for its magisterial hierarchy and a clerical culture that often trivialized the thoughts and suggestions of the laity--was a confession to remember.

Compare it to a similar gathering 10 years ago in Washington when the bishops took up the abuse issue. Then, protesting abuse victims were kept behind police barricades outside the conference hotel. The best the victims could get was an impromptu meeting with a few bishops. This time, victims are part of the formal agenda, grafted into the policymaking process itself.

Ten years ago the bishops approved a policy but made it optional for each diocese. This time, the conference is attempting to make national norms mandatory. How binding they will be will depend on the Vatican's approval. In the meantime, leaders of the bishops organization say they hope to hold their brother bishops accountable by issuing annual public reports on how well a local bishop is voluntarily complying.

No matter how tough a policy bishops adopt today, they may still be behind the curve. If they had enacted a policy like the one now before them five or 10 years ago, they might have come off as heroes. Instead they came up short. Now, though the victims are prepared to applaud the new proposal, they are simultaneously saying these new rules, by themselves, are not good enough.

The victims are calling for something not in the policy draft: a declaration that bishops themselves be disciplined for knowingly foisting abusive priests on unsuspecting parishes and continuing to put children in harm's way.

There were glimmers of light amid the shadows Thursday. They lay in the way some of the victims went out of their way to thank their own bishops and others in the church who had stood by them. They lay in the words of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who remembered the "stridency, almost confrontation and lots of anger 10 years ago," and contrasted it to a new "desire and willingness to work together to resolve this."

And it lay in the words of David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Victims and everyday Catholics, Clohessy said, have long believed that the only way they could exercise power in the church was to withhold their money. Now, in the face of what could be a turning point in the long and painful crisis of sexual abuse in the church, Clohessy allowed that perhaps victims should withhold something else: their judgment.

"Dallas," Bishop Gregory told the conference, "has to be a first step. A significant first step, but a first step." After decades of halfhearted and tepid responses by the bishops, Gregory hopes rank-and-file Catholics will reach one conclusion about the bishops.

"Our people have to be able to say, 'They got it.' "

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