- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

The Catholic faith is, by its own definition, everlasting, but the sexual-abuse scandal in the U.S. church has raised the question of how the American institution will survive.
"Whether the Catholic Church as currently governed and managed can proclaim the Gospel effectively in this milieu is an open question," Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame University professor, recently told the bishops in Dallas.
"In the court of public opinion, the church is now guilty until proven otherwise," he said.
At a time of lost credibility, the 60 million member church, with its 178 dioceses and 46,000 priests, is facing internal and external pressures that may change it completely.
Some of those pressures will be applied by what Mr. Appleby called the church's "enemies," who have ranged from secularists opposing its religious influence to lawyers wanting to sue it and liberal groups denouncing its moral stances.
"The current sex-abuse scandal has our society at a crossroads," Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement regarding the church's problem.
Without disclosing any new initiatives, she said her organization will "advance our proactive agenda for contraceptive equity and increased access to emergency contraception and medically accurate sexuality education."
More traditional Catholics worry that in the fights over sex education, abortion, homosexual rights or pornography, the clerical voice may become meek.
"My greatest fear is that the bishops will be too intimidated to speak out on matters sexual," said William A. Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "That is where lay Catholics have to fill the gap."
Foes of the church have not stripped it of its tax exemption, but the sexual-abuse liability has opened a door to church assets. A class-action lawsuit filed early last month has, analysts agree, little hope of success; other lawyers have raised the specter of trying RICO, or racketeering, complaints against the church.
Last month a New York grand jury investigating sexual-abuse charges said in a report that the church led an "orchestrated effort to protect abusing clergy members from investigation, arrest and prosecution." It recommended changing laws to make the church authorities accountable.
A grand jury has also been called in Boston to investigate possible crimes in the archdiocese there, according to new reports.
Still, investigations and lawsuits are unlikely to dissolve the church financially because the church is organized into many separate entities such as dioceses, orders and charities, said Kevin Baine, a Washington lawyer who has defended church cases. "There is a misconception that there is some legal entity called 'the Catholic Church,' and that is not true," he said.
He also said the church is unlikely to lose its religious liberty privileges, which include pastoral confidentiality, even as Catholic bishops may be deposed for criminal negligence over errant priests. "There is no reason to believe these cases will water down those general privileges," Mr. Baine said.
Some commentators have noted how little anti-Catholicism has been spurred by the scandal. But what negativity does exist may affect the fast-growing Hispanic sector of U.S. Catholicism, where evangelical sects are competing for converts. Those sects traditionally emphasize the "corruption" of the church in Rome.
Mainstream evangelicals will not "take advantage of this because we have problems in our own denominations," said Esdras Betancourt, chairman of the Hispanic commission for the National Association of Evangelicals.
But he said a sectarian minority will always "use whatever they can get to be anti-Catholic."
Regular churchgoers, meanwhile, are worried about the use of their donations. An estimated $7.5 billion is put in collection plates each year about $125 per Catholic annually. Some lay leaders are wondering whether that number will drop after the disclosure of million of dollars in hush money paid to sexual-abuse victims.
"We have urged the Catholic hierarchy to provide the figures on the cost of the settlements," said Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities. "We have no signal from them yet."
Mr. Butler's organization represents donors who give $200 million a year to church charities and schools. He said that while the Vatican publishes every detail on its income and assets, the U.S. dioceses do not.
"A policy of transparency will help a great deal," Mr. Butler said.
He said Catholics at the parish and diocesan level must demand a precise accounting of everything.
An opinion poll cited during the bishop's deliberations in Dallas said that about 80 percent of Catholics blamed them for the crisis instead of questioning their faith. "But what about the 1 in 10 who does question it?" said Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, who also addressed the bishops.
The scandal may accelerate a secularization seen in many denominations, including the Catholic Church, and will be especially hard to explain to young people who struggle with the church institution, she and Mr. Appleby said.
An equally harsh effect is expected on the image of the hierarchy and priesthood, and recruitment of new priests. In Dallas the bishops voted to strip abusive priests of clerical activity short of firing them from the organization.
A committee was also formed to "review the role of bishops themselves" and consider whether the pope should be advised to dismiss any for wrongdoing. That is also expected to be a policy proposal of a National Review Board, lead by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a former prosecutor who said some bishops may have been "obstructing justice or, arguably, accessories to the crime."
In scolding the bishops, Mr. Appleby said their "lack of accountability" was "fostered by a closed clerical culture that infects the priesthood." He and others have urged changes so that lay leaders can make decisions on money and assigning priests. Others have urged a lay role in appointing bishops, which is the sole authority of the pope.
The moral crisis, meanwhile, has spared neither the conservative nor liberal wings of the church.
Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, a conservative, shielded one of the more abusive priests on record. A leading liberal in the church, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, resigned after admitting that he paid $450,000 to a former seminarian.
Amid the scandal, the Vatican's official spokesman said the church should not ordain homosexuals. Traditionalists are calling on the bishops to "purify" the priestly ranks, even as some of the hierarchy are homosexual.
Three bishops with such complaints against them resigned in recent months.
"Serious attention must be given to the problem of active homosexuals being admitted to the priesthood," said Robert Royal, a Catholic scholar with Catholics for Authentic Reform, which organized amid the current crisis.
The church should be "rooting out such men," he said. In Dallas one conservative bishop's motion to consider the impact of the "homosexual culture" on the problem was voted down.

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