Will Bishops' Abuse Policy Attack Problem's Source?

National Catholic Register
June 16-22, 2002

Register Correspondent

DALLAS - Working on a comprehensive policy for handling clerical sexual abuse, American bishops  meeting this week have been getting more attention than ever before.

It has found them beleaguered, demoralized and under attack by factions inside and outside of the Church.

They have taken guidance and advice from everyone up to and including Pope John Paul II, and in Dallas they will disclose what immediate actions they plan to take in response to sexual abuse - past, present and future - by priests.

Some want heads to roll, in the form of an administrative "zero-tolerance" policy toward priests for any sexual abuse, no matter how far in the past, and no matter what actions they've taken to seek forgiveness, reconciliation and penance. 

Others say prevention is key. They say the Dallas session will succeed only if it focuses attention on the source of the problem: the failure to adhere to Church teachings on sexuality, particularly in Catholic seminaries. 

A draft report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse focused entirely on the former concerns. It called for automatic laicization of all priests convicted in future of sexual abuse but includes possible exceptions for one-time past offenders who have since maintained their vows of celibacy.

After its June 4 release, the draft report was attacked by those who want an even more punitive policy.

"The focus is too narrow," said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. "There's too much focus on abusive priests, and the recommendation is virtually silent on the crux of the matter, which is Church leadership. We want a policy in which the Vatican would defrock those bishops who knew of or suspected an abusive priest and allowed it to continue."

But while debate in Dallas will likely focus on fine-tuning the abuse policy, Pope John Paul II stressed in his April 23 address to U.S. cardinals and bishops that a more comprehensive response is required.

The world, he said, must know that bishops and priests are "totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life."

John Paul said that the bishops' response must foster an urgently needed purification of the entire Catholic community, and he called for genuine pastoral charity toward both victims and abusive priests.

"We cannot forget the power of the Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change," the Holy Father said.

Those comments have led some Catholic apologists to advocate a more pastoral response to sexual abuse. One concern is that media pressure for a harsh response may cause bishops to adopt policies that could lead to the laicization of innocent priests who are merely accused of sexual impropriety.

Another fear, said Camille De Blasi, director of the Center for Life Principles in Redmond, Wash., is that an  administrative focus might also distract bishops from the Pope's request for a comprehensive response. 

"As Christ's representative on earth, the Church has a responsibility not to engage in knee-jerk reactions to disjointed demands, but rather to seek reform in the spirit of Christ - workable reform, reform that offers healing to those who are hurt, and extends rehabilitation and forgiveness to offenders," De Blasi said. "Part of the solution is to reform what our seminaries are representing as Church teaching on human sexuality, so that it adheres to the true heart of Christ's meaning, taught and upheld by the Catholic Church for over 2,000 years."

Homosexual Problem

Although the mainstream press has characterized the collective sex-abuse scandal as one involving "pedophile priests," all credible evidence suggests priestly pedophilia is extremely rare. Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, said recently the incidence of pedophilia among priests was likely less than 1 in 2,000.

Instead, the scandal overwhelmingly mostly involves priests who have had sex with consenting post-pubescent boys. Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in New York, said bishops must address the homosexual issue truthfully if they are to eliminate future sexual misconduct.

"I think there can be an administrative quick fix that gets at the root of this problem," said Ruse, who like De Blasi is a member of the recently formed Catholics for Authentic Reform (Editor's Note: Tom Hoopes, executive editor of the Register, is also a member).

"The bishops need to go through the seminaries and say that from now on we're all going to be orthodox, and that means that we can no longer admit homosexuals, or men with other serious sexual disorders, into the priesthood," Ruse said. "If we would have been practicing the teachings of the Church all along, we wouldn't be facing this today."

Bishop: First Things First

Auxiliary Bishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, said that while many bishops would agree wholeheartedly with that analysis, the pressing concerns about sexual misconduct will require that they concentrate first on crafting an immediate national policy on abuse. 

Correcting course for the long-term, he said, will require more than the three-day meeting in Dallas.

"We probably are not going to be able to examine recommendations regarding the administration of seminaries. Not at this conference," Bishop Vigneron said. "These concerns raised by the Holy Father and the cardinals - I think there won't be time to deal with them properly in Dallas."

Bishop Vigneron said his fellow bishops would probably wait until summer or fall to deal with issues such as "making the spiritual good of souls" a priority and restoring "authentic teachings" to seminaries. 

"I don't think we're going to be shortsighted about any of this," he said. "The profound effort goes to doctrine of the Church, that's right. We have to base renewal of the Church on conversion and authentic teaching. I'll point out [in Dallas], however, that we have certain specific work for the day, and we will keep sight of the bigger task for subsequent meetings."

Still, Bishop Vigneron said he expects bishops will discuss, formally or informally, whether homosexuals should ever be ordained as priests. In the 1961 Vatican document "Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders," the Sacred Congregation for Religious specifically ruled out candidates with homosexual tendencies, stating that "for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers" (No. 30).

"I fully hold with Church teaching that says same-sex orientation is a disorder," Bishop Vigneron said. "If a candidate presents himself with a same-sex disorder, at the very least there are a lot of very serious issues to be thought through, in terms of the goal, which is celibate chastity and priestly chastity, which has its own nuptial character. At this time in history, we may need to exclude people with this disorder entirely."

If bishops don't agree to exclude homosexuals completely from seminaries, Bishop Vigneron said he suspected future exceptions will be extremely rare.

"A lot of men who have a same-sex disorder are starting from a point at which it is not possible for them to be suitable candidates for the priesthood," Bishop Vigneron said. He suggested that a homosexual candidate for the priesthood would need to achieve at least six years of celibacy.

"And by celibate, I don't mean simply continence and abiding by the Sixth and Ninth Commandments," Bishop Vigneron continued. "I'm talking about a sense of identity that permits a man to understand himself as standing in the person of Christ, as a husband to the Church and as father to the faithful. That's the measure of a man's chastity - accepting the nuptial meaning of the body."

"If that's possible with a homosexual man, then we can deliberate about admitting men like that into formation," he said. "I don't know if it's possible."

A Failed Revolution

Ruse of Catholics for Authentic Reform said he's confident the Dallas meeting will move the Church in a positive direction as long as the bishops reject calls for radical reforms of Church teaching.

"A lot of progressive Catholics see this as an opportunity to finish their revolution, which at this point has utterly failed," Ruse said. "So there will be a call for an end to celibacy. Of course there will be a call to ordain women as priests. All of these suggested reforms completely misdiagnose the problem, and I suspect they will be completely resisted by the bishops.

"Whatever comes of this, it cannot simply be a trimming of the sails to please the media," he said. "That would be a disaster. The other disaster would be to say, 'Oh, this will blow over,' and to go on with business as usual."

That won't happen, insisted Bishop Vigneron. Instead, Catholics should anticipate a strengthening of the Church through a renewal of priestly holiness, beginning with the meeting in Dallas.

"As the Holy Father said, 'So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier Church.' As Christians, when facing trial we are always faced with the choice of relying more on God and becoming a more faithful disciple or of moving in the other direction," Bishop Vigneron said. "I'm praying that the faithful rely more on God as a result of all of this."

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.