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Bishops and Abuse Crisis: Buck Stops Where, How?

Most Catholics say they are angrier about the cover-ups than about the molestations. Accountability will be a big issue for conference.

November 09, 2002|From Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — The nation's Catholic bishops gather here starting Monday for their annual meeting, during which they will consider changes in their policy on sexually abusive priests and discuss their own accountability.

A preliminary report to be delivered at the conference will come from a special committee responsible for deciding how bishops can be held more accountable to each other and to their flocks.

The accountability question has hindered the bishops' attempts to move beyond the church's sex abuse crisis. Many lay Catholics are angry that bishops who allowed the problem to fester have not resigned or have not been disciplined.

In a June poll, 96% of Catholics said the pope should "take disciplinary action" against a bishop who allowed abuse to continue. In September, 61% of Catholics said they were more disturbed by the cover-ups than the abuse itself.

Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego, chairman of the seven-member panel, said he does not foresee new rules or penalties for bishops who abuse their power or mishandle a crisis. Instead, Brom said, he envisions guidelines for more informal -- perhaps private -- rebukes among the bishops.

One possibility would be to empower the church's 33 geographic provinces to confront errant bishops within their borders. The archbishop of Boston, for example, has limited supervision over six other bishops in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Whatever the final policy, Brom said any discipline or reprimand would encompass aspects of "fraternal support, fraternal challenge and even fraternal correction."

Brom said the last 10 months have reminded the bishops that their influence extends well beyond their church walls.

"Holding ourselves and each other accountable is one thing, and that's important," he said. "But in doing so, we don't want to diminish the accountability beyond ourselves to the church and to society."

When the bishops approved new get-tough regulations on sex abuse in June, they did not address how or whether negligent bishops should be held accountable. They quickly pointed out that the only person who can remove or discipline a bishop is the pope.

Brom and others on the committee want to find avenues for the bishops to show "tough love" to other bishops who abuse or fumble their authority.

"The delicacy is how do you do that?" said Auxiliary Bishop Jerome Listecki of Chicago, a member of the panel. "You have to do it without being intrusive, without trying to make decisions for that bishop, because that's certainly out of the purview of any of the bishops."

Lay groups say they are outraged that negligent bishops remain in office. Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for the Call to Action group, said the bishops' policies are more offensive than the abuse itself.

"People get upset at the priests who did the violation ... but the real anger is reserved for the bishops who allowed it to happen and to be repeated over and over again," she said. "That has not been addressed."

Asked whether the church can ever move beyond the scandal while negligent bishops remain in office, Brom demurred. "Do we all think there have to be better systems of accountability? Yes."

He said he will present his committee's initial findings to the full house of bishops next week, but he said those bishops probably will not make any final decisions until their meeting in June.

Other panel members are Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, and Bishops John Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh and Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D.

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