- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

Sexual abuse among Catholic clergy, according to all available statistics, occurs no more frequently than it does among clergy in other Christian denominations or the population at large. But the U.S. bishops' failure to act forcefully in putting a stop to the abuse involving members of the priesthood is a scandal that the American Catholic Church owns exclusively. As the American cardinals convened in the Vatican last week, Pope John Paul II spoke unequivocally: "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality." Now the pressure is on the U.S. bishops to show some moral leadership and restore the public's confidence.
Unfortunately, their record in this regard is less than perfect. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Catholic scholar George Weigel notes that from the 1960s through the 1980s, "a culture of dissent took root in American seminaries, theology faculties and church bureaucracies and … clerical discipline broke down." One aspect of this "culture of dissent" was a hostility towards the church's traditional teachings on sexual morality. Those responsible for maintaining the integrity of the church's ministry, whether out of fear of priest shortages or a misguided sense of compassion or protectiveness, failed to respond adequately to an influx of unfit priests. The current scandal is the result.
Though the real fruits of the Vatican meeting will not become apparent until the bishops meet in Dallas in June, there were some promising developments. Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua confirms that all of the cardinals "are agreed that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor will function in any ecclesiastical ministry or any capacity in our dioceses." A careful reading of the cardinals' "final communique" confirms that this "zero-tolerance" policy is in the works. It also appropriately leaves room for rehabilitation of priests who may have let down their guard briefly with consenting adult females.
The cardinals also called for a "new and serious" investigation of seminaries and houses of formation. If they are serious, they will take this opportunity to restore discipline and integrity to institutions that have often been breeding grounds for dissent and promiscuous homosexuality. It was encouraging, then, to read the cardinals' declaration that, "The pastors of the Church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care." However, the cardinals did not address the calls made by many critics that the church report credible accusations of abuse to the civil authorities. Nor did they address what they will do with bishops who do not follow the new guidelines. These issues must be resolved when the bishops meet in June.
Strict new policies are crucial. Even more important, however, is how the bishops act in the future. As Catholic World Report editor Phil Lawler writes, "Procedures and guidelines are tools; they are useful only if the people in authority the bishops are prepared to use them properly." The U.S. bishops must begin to take responsibility for the state of the church. American Catholics demand it.

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