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Conservatives and Liberals Are Unified by Church Sex Scandal

Catholicism: The traditional adversaries find common ground, but also hope that by bashing bishops they can advance their own opposing agendas.

June 14, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — Through their mishandling of the abuse crisis, America's Catholic bishops have unified a collection of dissident groups that for years lobbied with little impact for competing causes within the church.

Now they are bashing the bishops.

Catholic conservatives, some of whom historically blamed priestly abuse on homosexuality, and progressives, some of whom blamed it on celibacy, were standing together Thursday on the premise that the church's bishops should be held accountable for failing to rein in predatory priests.

In the 93-degree heat outside the bishops' national conference and in meeting rooms across the city, they talked about the heady, albeit unlikely, prospect of forcing the resignation of any bishop who allowed an errant priest to roam parishes or schools.

The momentary alliance between people historically at odds over everything from birth control to women's ordination stunned some observers.

"When the right and left come together," said Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic feminist theologian, "you know a revolution is happening."

The bishop-bashing could be read on the signs of protesters standing outside the conference's headquarters at the Dallas Fairmont Hotel: "We Want Holy Bishops, Not Paranoid CEOs" and "Zero Tolerance for Bishops' Sex Abuse Politics."

The common goal is natural, said Michael Brennan, 59, of Rochester, N.Y., a member of Concerned Roman Catholics of America, a conservative group. He stood behind police barriers with signs quoting Pope John Paul II: "Everyone Can Recognize When Someone Has Committed a Crime."

Protection of children and the bishops' cover-up of abusive priests are easy rallying points for both sides. But self-interest also has propelled them. With bishops weakened by the crisis, the activists see a vacuum that could be filled by their personal cause, whether it's barring homosexuals from seminaries and the ministry or allowing women to become priests.

"Neither the right nor left has any power," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a liberal group. "The conservatives are just as weak as we are. The bishops have had all the power."

As an illustration, the advocates cite the draft of the bishops' sexual abuse policy that was released last week and will be voted on today. Nowhere in it did the bishops--who run individual dioceses and report directly to the Vatican--place accountability measures on themselves in case they were found to have protected a molesting priest.

Since January, when news reports of abuse and lax personnel oversight began to mushroom throughout the nation, stories of bishops failing to oust errant priests have become almost routine. On Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News published a survey stating that at least two-thirds of the bishops who head the 194 U.S. dioceses allowed priests with credible allegations of sexual abuse in their past to continue in ministry. Many worked among children.

"They have no policies to deal with themselves," Kissling said. "And they are the ones who really fueled the scandal by moving priests and insisting on confidentiality agreements."

The eruption of the scandal has allowed various advocacy groups to promote long-standing causes as part of the solution. For example, some conservatives believe a homosexual subculture has been allowed to develop within the church and led to a loosening of sexual morals. Some liberals have argued that sexual abuse shows that mandated celibacy doesn't work and that married and female priests are needed for a healthy clergy.

At the conference, these theories have drifted into the background while the bishops' responsibility has been pushed front and center--even overshadowing the conduct of abusive priests.

"Bishops are supposed to be shepherds, and a good shepherd lays down his life for their sheep when they're attacked by wolves," said protester Lisa Nicholas, a 44-year-old graduate student at the University of Dallas. "These bishops are even more at fault than the priests."

The prelates' lack of action spurred Juan and Sara Perez, conservative Catholics from Phoenix, to drive 1,000 miles to Dallas to protest outside the conference.

"We want back our clean, beautiful Catholic Church with holy bishops and cardinals," said Sara Perez, a 52-year-old grandmother of three, wiping her brow with a handkerchief. "We are tired of this."

Progressive Catholics from a variety of advocacy groups who met Thursday at a nearby Dallas hotel said they had little hope that the conference would end with any bishops resigning or putting significant penalties in place for their own misconduct.

But they said they were encouraged that public pressure had forced the bishops to at least consider such proposals during a closed-door session Thursday.

"They are being put on the spot, and don't they deserve it," said Ruth Hittner Steinert, a self-described radical feminist from Cincinnati.

Many believe that the marriage of convenience is fragile; some are simply relishing it.

"I don't consider it to be strange bedfellows," said Hittner Steinert. "The Holy Spirit works to bring people together with fundamental truth, and support has come from those who most vehemently oppose us. The fundamental truth is: Many bishops have lied, embraced self-preservation and faced nothing."

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