US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Are the bishops finally facing the facts on their handling of sex abuse?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

It seems like the U.S. bishops are finally acknowledging something that the rest of the world has known for quite some time: Their past handling of the sexual abuse crisis in the church was a major blow to their credibility.

I'm not quite sure why it took them so long to come to that realization, but that's the message Bishop Daniel Conlon, who heads the bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, delivered to safe environment and victim assistance coordinators at a conference last month. David Gibson of Religion News Service reports that Conlon said he, and presumably his fellow bishops, honestly believed that implementing child protection policies combined with some good publicity would restore the credibility of the church's leaders.

"I now know this was an illusion," Conlon admits. He went on to say the bishops' credibility on the issue has been "shredded," to which I'm sure many Catholics would respond, "yeah, no kidding."

In a survey conducted just a few months ago, the readers of this magazine made clear that they had lost a lot of faith in the church's leaders as a result of the sex abuse crisis. And the recent headlines about the conviction of Philadelphia archdiocesan official Msgr. William Lynn and the upcoming trial of Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn aren't making things any better.

Conlon was also willing to admit something rarely heard from bishops--that they need the help of lay Catholics. He's right in saying that progress has been made on addressing and preventing abuse. As we reported in our June cover story, diocesan review boards have had both successes and failures in helping the bishops address sex abuse cases--often depending on how cooperative bishops have been with their boards--and those successes make for much less interesting headlines than the failures in Philadelphia and Kansas City.

The bishops are wise to ask for help in publicizing the good work they've done and the progress they've made. But if they hope to restore their credibility, they also need to acknowledge that they have a lot of work left to do themselves. If they want to keep those negative stories from dominating the headlines, the best way to do it is to prevent them from happening.

Related reading:

Take it to the board: How effective are lay review boards in preventing sex abuse?

We can do better: Responding to sex abuse 10 years later