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The Sin of Media Ignorance

The misinformation about the bishops' conference is intolerable.

November 13, 2002|Andrew M. Greeley | Andrew M. Greeley, a priest and sociologist in Chicago, is the author, most recently, of "Irish Stew!" (Tor Books, 2002).

The U.S. Catholic bishops and the Vatican are getting a bad rap on the "rewriting" of the protocol to protect children from predatory priests that the bishops adopted in Dallas in June.

I started decrying child abuse by priests in 1985 and lost most of my friends in the priesthood for, in effect, breaking the code of silence. So the Catholic clergy may deserve the bad rap because of its own ineptitude. Yet the bias in the news stories establishes in my mind the fact that in this round, some journalists and some television writers have turned viciously anti-Catholic.

Despite what you may have heard or read, the following is not happening at the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington this week:

* The lay review boards in every diocese are not being downgraded. They've always been advisory -- though no bishop in his right mind rejects their "advice." Even if more than a few bishops are not in their right minds, they will be clobbered by all the others if they mess this up.

* The bishops are not saying they do not have to report cases to the civil authorities. Quite the contrary, the suggested revisions underline this obligation.

* The bishops have not and will not give up the power to prevent an abusing priest permanently from doing ministerial work, no matter what may happen in the appellate process.

* There is no major rewriting of the document drawn up by the bishops this past June in Dallas, save in matters concerning due process for accused priests. Here, bizarrely enough, the Vatican is playing the role of the American Civil Liberties Union: It is protecting the right of one to be presumed innocent until proved guilty and thrown out of the priesthood.

* It is not true that offenders from the past will be excused because of a statute of limitations. A bishop can still prevent such a man from doing ministerial work. Moreover, if he wants to throw the man out of the priesthood, he can apply to Rome for permission to suspend the statute. Such permission usually is granted.

There is a complete lack of clarity in many news stories about the difference between ejecting a man from the priesthood, which requires due process, and banning him from priestly ministry, which does not.

How did all this confusion arise?

First of all, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who headed the Vatican commission that reviewed the Dallas documents, seems to have thought that they were adequate enough to be tested for two years. Unfortunately, this recommendation was overruled by others who had no sense of how angry American Catholics were.

Then the American bishops made the terrible mistake of keeping the Rome document secret for four days while the media distorted it beyond recognition.

The distortion was abetted by a few of the supposed victims' leaders who, reveling in their power and 15 minutes of fame, don't want any due process for the accused. They probably would not be satisfied if the Vatican had mandated castration for every priest in the nation.

Some of the reporting on the bishops' meeting is so filled with misinformation that it has to be either deliberately anti-Catholic or intolerably ignorant.

Add to that such emotionally charged television as Sunday's episode of the ABC drama "The Practice," in which the main character announces that he is so angry about the abuse scandal that he is leaving the church.

Here is the problem: The Vatican doesn't know what is going on in the U.S. The American bishops do, but they can't or won't explain it properly. So that leaves others to explain, and their motives are not to explain but to defame.

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