Whitewash or renewal?

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In year two of the sex-abuse scandal, it it time for the laity to brush up on their leadership skills?

About 200 laypeople from some 50 Chicago-area parishes pack a hall one March evening at the Dominican Priory in River Forest, Illinois to hear Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) cofounder and ex-president James Muller make a pitch for their consciences and the future of the church.

As the clergy sexual-abuse crisis roiling the Catholic Church rolls into year two, these folks gather to learn why and how they should be involved with VOTF's mission to reform the church. With more than 25,000 members and 160 parish-based chapters, VOTF emerged out of the debacle in the Boston archdiocese as the largest national lay response to the crisis, advocating support for victims of clergy sexual abuse, a broader governance role for laypeople, and support for "priests of integrity."

But before they hear Muller, the assembly listens to the testimony of one survivor of clergy sexual abuse and learns about the devastating impact it had on her life. One of her worst moments, Bobbie Sitterding tells this hushed audience, came during a hospitalization that followed years after her abuse. It was the realization that "I have not been the person, the wife, and the mother to my children that I might have been." A regret she should not have had to carry cracks her voice.

"I am a Catholic victim of clergy sex abuse," she tells them, "I don't know how to be anyone else."

Depending on whom you ask, in the past year of scandal the bishops have made great strides in establishing new policies and procedures that will protect our children or they've begun another cycle of paper shuffling that will inevitably lead to more abuse and another period of scandal and humiliation.

Activists point out that, although this has been the worst year of scandal yet, we've been down this road before. Bishops have responded to previous "outbreaks" of clerical malfeasance with new policies, apologies, and commitments, only to eventually disregard them once the attention of the laity and the media has slackened.

"Children's lives are still at risk," says one advocate for abuse survivors, "because the bishops believe that they have passed through the worst of the crisis, because they have responded with words on paper instead of actions of the heart."

Some survivors say it is time to give up on the bishops altogether and pressure secular authorities to better police a church that won't-or can't-police itself.

Still, as rotten as the current crisis has been for the church and however much it marred its credibility and damaged it financially, the crisis does offer a unique, if unwelcome, opportunity to critically reevaluate institutional structures with poignant questions: How can we protect our children? How can we finally be assured that such scandals won't revisit the church?

Watching the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops struggle to respond to the abuse crisis over the past 18 months, one thing has become painfully clear to Dominican Father Thomas Doyle: The bishops cannot be trusted to do the job right.

The bishops, says Doyle, have "kept their distance from the victims and continued to antagonize them. They have concentrated on shifting all blame to the abuserclerics and avoided the central question, which is the bishops' responsibility in all of this from way back to now."

Doyle was among the first to alert U.S. bishops to the time bomb of pedophilia and abuse of power, co-authoring a landmark-and disastrously ignored-report 18 years ago. Now, Doyle says, the time has come for laypeople to step up and take charge of the crisis and the church.

"The laity are waking up and growing up, and I believe they need to demand to be treated not as subjects but as brothers and sisters in the Lord. This [church] is not a monarchy, even though it looks like one, acts like one, and responds like one."

The media are the messengers

There is evidence that Doyle's skepticism is not misplaced. A look at the more than 3,100 headlines that have been posted at the Poynter Institute's "abuse tracker," an online resource for journalists, since the scandal redetonated with the Boston Globe s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose is profoundly discouraging. Hundreds of stories report new allegations of cover-ups across the country. Sprinkled among these accounts of abuse and Roman collar roulette-the transfer of predator priests within dioceses and around the country-are the profoundly sad stories of the despair and even suicide of survivors.

Within that clamoring of headlines, tales of hierarchal insensitivity continue to astonish:

  • In February, a grand jury investigation charged the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York with protecting 58 sexually abusive priests through what it called a "sham" policy designed to protect the church's reputation and minimize payouts to victims. Nine months in the making, the 180-page report from the Suffolk County grand jury said, "The response of priests in the diocesan hierarchy to allegations of criminal sexual abuse was not pastoral. In fact, although there was a written policy that set a pastoral tone, it was a sham. The diocese failed to follow the policy from its inception, even at the most rudimentary level."
     
  • In November 2002, Paterson, New Jersey Bishop Frank Rodimer reinstated a priest to pastoral service. That priest had been removed after a 25-year-old incident surfaced, alleging that he touched the genitals of a teen boy while in bed with him. The action was deemed "inappropriate" contact by a diocesan review board but not abuse according to the church's new criteria.
     
  • In February, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George hosted an admitted abuser at his residence, a priest working on a temporary assignment in an archdiocesan office next door to a grade school. The man's offense had occurred before his ordination. George defended his hospitality by noting that he had been informed his guest was a "priest in good standing" by his home diocese. As part of a probationary agreement, the priest had admitted to sexually assaulting one of his male high school students "once or twice a week for two years" in the late 1970s.

Other news reports offer evidence of widespread institutional chaos. Franciscan friars are suing the Los Angeles archdiocese, while the Diocese of San Bernardino sues the Boston archdiocese. Both clerical plaintiffs are attempting to shift liability generated by victims' civil cases to the home dioceses of predator priests who were transferred without background disclosures.

And in another assault on the sensibilities of survivors and their families, an attorney for Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law pulled together testimony later described as misconstrued and out of context to suggest that one of the many alleged victims of serial molester Father Paul Shanley had actually been raped by his own father. The outraged and weeping father was discovered outside the courtroom: "It's the lowest thing they could say about a parent," he told reporters. "It's an absolute disgrace."

Though such headlines may be driving the Catholic public to scandal fatigue, their depressing persistence indicates that this crisis is far from over and its legal and ethical ramifications remain far from resolved.

Status quo report

Church historian R. Scott Appleby would be happy to offer exhausted Catholics a break from the sorry news, but it's not that easy.

"The good news is it's hard to imagine that sexual abuse by priests will continue to be a problem near the scale it's been in the past," says Appleby, the director of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Of course, "no one can say safely that there will never be abuse in the future." He emphasizes that the abuse that did take place was committed by a small minority of priests, deplorable as their actions were. "We're human beings-priests and sisters and laypeople-and as long as that's the case there will be sin and manipulation of power and sexual immorality."

The church's newfound vigilance will help reduce sex abuse to a level lower than anywhere else in society, Appleby believes. "Even the bishop or priest or sister or layperson who was most deeply in denial in January 2002 can no longer plausibly ignore this problem," he says. "The opposite is more likely to be true, namely that the church will be so vigilant that the real problem will be how to restore familiarity and the appropriate kinds of intimacy between priests and people."

But "I think finally, at least on this very basic level, we 'get it,' the church gets it."

Unfortunately, that could be the end of the good news. The bad news begins with the realization that this scandal has "never been just about the incidence of sexual abuse. It's been about a culture of secrecy, clericalism, a lack of trust and confidence in the laity, a lack of transparency and accountability in the church, and an arrogance that is used to dominate and not to serve," Appleby says. "It's not as clear that the church in the hierarchy has recognized and accepted the equal severity of this dimension of the crisis."

For that dimension of the scandal, the news is not encouraging, Appleby believes. "We have not come out of this crisis; we have not begun to deal with the fallout from it: emotionally, psychologically, financially, legally, pastorally, theologically."

Where's the leadership?

Victims' advocates see a leadership vacuum. "Right now, we're not seeing the hoped-for progress from the bishops, except in a few instances," says Sue Archibald, president of the Linkup, one of the earliest survivors' groups that for years attempted to alert mainstream Catholics to this brewing crisis. Archibald worries most that the current spasm of scandal-inspired institutional soul-searching may turn out to be as short-lived as those instigated by abuse revelations in the late 1980s and early 1990s when similar reform procedures were devised, sporadically enforced, then allowed to fade from consciousness.

What happens when the public uproar subsides and the secular media-institutional constraints within the Catholic diocesan press have hampered or eliminated outright investigative coverage from within the church-move on to the next big story? Archibald says true institutional reform now is the only way past abuse can thoroughly be uncovered, the problem of current abuse addressed, and future abuse prevented. Accountability and transparency, she says, must become institutional hallmarks of the Catholic Church.

Archibald was guardedly optimistic after the unprecedented June 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, which included riveting testimony from survivors of clergy sex abuse and public rebukes of the U.S. church's "clerical culture" from former Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels and Notre Dame's Appleby.

At the close of the meeting, the bishops approved a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." Among other sanctions, the charter called for the creation of an Office of Child and Youth Protection, the establishment of a National Review Board of laypeople to consult with the bishops on the crisis, and the creation of comparable lay boards at the diocesan level. The "essential norms" that accompanied the charter were revised in October to address various Vatican concerns with language and procedures, focusing primarily on "due process" for accused priests.

A year later, Archibald is convinced that the church's Dallas summer is sadly over. She argues that the Dallas-inspired commitment to reform has been dampened by the Vatican-mandated revisions-a view contested by members of the National Review Board (see interview with Frank Keating, "Are our children safe yet?").

Archibald says that every diocese should have an elected lay review board with real enforcement powers. Under the revised norms, the diocesan boards have only "consultative" power with local bishops who will make the final decisions on clerical wrong-doing in consultations of their own with Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Vatican's "October surprise," Archibald fears, may herald a return to secrecy over matters of clergy misconduct and a return of control over the crisis to a hierarchy whose "primary motive is protecting the church from scandal."

How will the intentions of the charter and norms be interpreted by diocesan review boards? How will their dictates be applied? How will bishops respond to non-binding recommendations that are at odds with their own desires? These are some of the questions that trouble Archibald and others as the church moves through year two of the crisis. Even now, she says, church officials remain more likely to err on the side of clergy when gray areas in abuse allegations allow.

USCCB President Bishop Wilton Gregory of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois declined to offer the bishops' perspective on the crisis for this article (three other bishops from major U.S. dioceses did not respond at all to requests for interviews), but in November 2002 Gregory said it was time for the church to "move on." Then he took a rhetorical swipe at groups advocating for change in the church.

"As bishops, we should have no illusions about the intent of some people who have shown more than a casual interest in the discord we have experienced within the church this year," Gregory said in an opening address to the U.S. bishops' meeting in Washington. To thunderous applause from his colleagues, he charged that some of those exploiting the scandal are non-Catholics who "are hostile to the very principles and teachings" of the church, then added: "Sadly, even among the baptized, there are those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas."

Positive steps

Kathleen McChesney was once the No. 3 official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Last December she was tapped to head the bishops' new Office for Child and Youth Protection. She believes most U.S. bishops are determined to implement the provisions of the Dallas charter with a goal of putting a true end to the crisis by protecting children. "The bishops are very supportive of the initiatives we've undertaken," she says.

Though technically an employee of the USCCB, McChesney reports directly to the lay National Review Board. Responding to criticism that the national board, like the parallel diocesan boards, has no formal power, McChesney says, "It wasn't intended for the board to have power but to have influence." If the charter's 17 articles are implemented faithfully, "they will work," she says.

Among the responsibilities of her new office are to assist individual dioceses in the creation and execution of "safe environment" programs and to produce an annual report of the charter's progress. The report will be based on regular audits that measure how well all of the U.S. dioceses are living up to the intentions of the charter. The response of individual bishops to the work of her office will be included in the report, but McChesney says, "We expect them all to cooperate."

The implementation of the charter, McChesney believes, is creating an atmosphere within dioceses that will empower knowledgeable people to identify abuse and to prevent it to the extent that is possible. According to McChesney, preliminary information indicates that much of the abuse that has driven the scandal occurred years ago, though she warns it often takes years for accounts of abuse to surface.

"Parents should find these positive steps reassuring in making the church even safer," she says, but ultimately they must remain vigilant. Part of the diocesan responsibility for creating "safe environments" at parishes and church institutions, she adds, may be to develop parish-level educational programs to help parents recognize signs of abuse and learn how to protect their children.

Father Tom Doyle, however, is not as confident the charter will be enforced effectively. "The charter will be held up the way the bishops want it to be held up," he says. "It will primarily respond to their needs and not the victims or the broader church. I realize I am cynical, but that cynicism is grounded in 18 years experience. In spite of public statements by the bishops there still is no widespread reaching out to victims in a truly compassionate manner. [Victims] are still seen as the enemy [by the bishops]."

File management

A major ongoing issue remains the opening of diocesan records of priest-abusers and their victims and the liberation of survivors from sometimes decades-old confidentiality agreements. "If the church is truly committed to repentance and healing, then it should also be open to truth," Archibald says. As long as the laity continue to feel "that the church is holding back and trying to protect its image, then the mistrust will continue."

Archibald also worries that coverage of the crisis is disintegrating into a numbers game as church officials try to minimize the problem by stressing the low percentage-by some estimates as low as 1 to 3 percent-of Catholic priests who have misbehaved. Yet a recent study by the New York Times suggests the real figure of abusers may be closer to 6 or 7 percent. Archibald says the actual percentages are important because they begin to describe how this problem "is deeper and more embedded [in the institution] than we realize."

Following one of the mandates of the charter, the bishops have commissioned a study now being conducted by researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Its report on the actual incidents and nature of clergy sexual abuse will detail the number of victims and the percentage of abusing priests. McChesney expects it to be completed by December.

Mark Serrano was one of the abuse survivors who last year told his story both to U.S. CATHOLIC magazine and at the Dallas meeting. A year later Serrano, now a board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), feels he has turned a corner on a difficult period of his life. "It's so powerful to speak out and break the silence," he says. But based on his frustrating experiences with the bishops, Serrano is certain most remain mired in an institutional inability to honestly confront the crisis and initiate reform. At this point, that's fine with him. "Going into Dallas, we were hoping to touch the hearts and the minds of the church leaders." No more.

"Even in Dallas," he says, "we were treated like the enemy." Meetings with church representatives over the last year were "like trying to negotiate world peace."

Serrano has given up on any hope of "converting" the bishops. "I don't have time for them anymore." Though he says he will remain a watchdog of the bishops, Serrano is focusing his energies now on pushing institutional reform through secular forces-"third parties."

Serrano has become an advocate for legislation that would extend statutes of limitation on child molestation and other legislative remedies meant to pry open church records, and he pressures prosecutors to more aggressively pursue priests and bishops on criminal assault or obstruction charges. He is particularly keen to take his message to Catholic legislators and prosecutors, concerned that some may be hesitant about supporting legislation or pressing criminal cases that affect the church. The kind of state legislation Serrano seeks has already drawn resistance from church lobbyists around the country.

Such secular intrusions into what has been viewed as strictly church matters have alarmed many members of the hierarchy such as Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahony and Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who have denounced them as unconstitutional interference with the church. Church officials may sincerely be concerned about protecting the seal of the confessional, but efforts to protect ancient diocesan communications about problem priests seem nakedly self-serving.

To the disgust of survivors and the broader lay community, church lawyers have exploited statutes of limitations to terminate civil and criminal cases. Meanwhile the bishops' resistance to legislative proposals to extend statutes of limitations on child sex abuse seems an obvious attempt to protect dioceses from unknowable liabilities as abuse allegations accumulate. The fact that church leaders find themselves resisting the same legislation or investigations that lay Catholics are often advocating is symptomatic of a perhaps widening divide between the laity and hierarchy that has been exposed by the crisis.

"Fear is a powerful motivator," says Appleby. "Unfortunately, we often act out of fear. There are many reasons for the hierarchy or some members of it or the priesthood to be in a state of fear and panic and anxiety. They're under attack and that ironically reinforces the problem that got us into this in the first place: Circle the wagons and protect one another.

"There are more confident, hopeful, faithful responses than widening the gulf between 'us' and 'them.' The church ought to be reaching out, affirming the laity, affirming one another, recognizing its sinfulness in this area." That's proven difficult because of how deeply rooted the clerical culture is in the American church, says Appleby. "This didn't just happen in 2002."

Preferential option for the collar?

The strange journey of Mahony in Los Angeles makes a good case study of the dilemmas of clericalism. Appleby calls Mahony a decent man who sincerely wants reform. Yet his actions seem to veer back and forth between saying the right things on openness, then slamming the church door shut when uninvited visitors come to explore that openness. "The ecclesial system itself curtails his movement in terms of genuine reform," says Appleby.

Mahony's lawyers have waged a vigorous campaign against prosecutors who are eager to get a look at diocesan files, delaying investigations even as the clock ticks on the statute of limitations for child abuse. The case offers an illuminating example of the hierarchy's conflicting impulses as it confronts this crisis. Mahony's overriding defensive impulses-activated by the media and legal whirlwind swirling around Los Angeles-seem to have silenced his internal voice of reform. Appleby believes Mahony may now be stuck in the belief that "I have to save this diocese and defend my priests whatever it takes."

If hierarchal "reformers" like Mahony can't get the church moving in a new direction, who or what can? The only logical force that has the legitimate authority to redefine church in the aftermath of this crisis is the Catholic laity, Appleby says. Laypeople, he says, have to speak up and demand a larger role in the leadership of the church.

Otherwise they can resign themselves to waiting "for a new pope or for a change of heart among the bishops." These are developments that could break a clerical logjam, but they seem even less likely, says Appleby, than the "somewhat unlikely emergence of a lay movement that will be able to make a difference."

Jim Muller, representing precisely that lay movement-VOTF-reminds his fellow laypeople that they can't expect good men to spontaneously step forward to "fix" the crisis when it is the hierarchal structure itself that propelled it.

"I'm pulling for Voice of the Faithful," says Appleby, adding that more lay Catholics have to become involved in VOTF's crusade and in creating a national forum for articulate lay leadership.

VOTF has been shrewd enough to refrain from taking positions on controversial issues such as women's ordination and priestly celibacy. It remains fixed on the issue of constructing a lay role in church governance. Laypeople are 99.9 percent of the church, Muller argues, "but they have no voice in how it is run."

"My major hope is that the laity wake up to the horror of the abuse issue and get out of denial and magical thinking. It's offensive that some will defend the 'good priests' but have done nothing to reach out to or express concern for the thousands of victims."

The bishops, unfortunately, have been overwhelmingly uncooperative with VOTF's mission. VOTF sent more than 300 letters to bishops around the country in an effort to begin a dialogue; only 10 even bothered to reply. The group has been banned outright in seven dioceses. Individual bishops are refusing to accept the "alternative" collections the group has organized for Catholics who don't want to drop their usual contributions in the parish or diocesan basket.

"It's a sign of the sinfulness of the church, frankly, that the hierarchy has been so punitive to Voice of the Faithful," says Appleby. "It's a scandal and an embarrassment. It has to be named that way. It's a moment of sadness that such a group that is attempting to reach out and address the pain and the divisions of the church and to do so responsibly and faithfully would be discredited and rebuked and marginalized by the bishops-[such] arrogance of power, the assumption that only the bishops are the church, that they are the owners, the 'corporation sole.'"

But lay Catholics are not without some power of their own. It comes not just from the barrel of their rhetorical guns but from the bottom of the weekly collection basket. VOTF's alternative collections have raised thousands of dollars to support Catholic social services and to prevent donations ending up paying for sealed civil settlements.

Unfortunately, says Appleby, there's a segment of the hierarchy that would be willing to subsist as a "sacred remnant" of the church and allow parish rolls and Catholic social services to diminish before they would respond to lay appeals for powersharing. In Boston, Law's interim successor Bishop Richard Lennon has not only rejected donations that have been collected by VOTF, he has ordered the Boston-area Catholic Charities to reject VOTF collections as well. (Catholic Charities later declined to join the bishop's VOTF boycott.)

VOTF and the call for reform it carries represent the kind of people who volunteer for altar duty and parish committees, the heart and soul of the church, says the Linkup's Archibald. That's an encouraging sign to survivors like her. The bishops, she says, send a message of "Trust us, we'll take care of this, you don't need to know about it." But "lay Catholics are beginning to understand that if they care about the church, if they love the church, they shouldn't be afraid to try to fix the problem."

Archibald notes the corporate-style response of many bishops to VOTF's appeals for dialogue. "If you follow that corporate model, maybe the hierarchy has to be reminded that we're the stockholders; we're the church, it belongs to us."

To achieve the institutional reforms she thinks are so important to truly putting an end to the crisis, Archibald says, the entire issue may have to be reduced to money, as parishioners withhold donations until laypeople achieve an opening in the church power structure.

Many of the people who gathered in River Forest to hear about VOTF appear to be seeking that opening in the church, though uncertainty about where this process is taking them and fear of recrimination are palpable. Many hesitate before speaking to a reporter. A Dominican priest, "43 years ordained," whose delighted grin is a testimony to his enthusiasm for VOTF, pronounces his support for the lay effort. "I think it's wonderful," he says, then quickly requests that his anonymity be respected. One couple, retired Chicago archdiocesan employees, refuse even to talk anonymously about their presence at the VOTF meeting. They scurry away waving off questions.

Others seem startled to be asked their opinion about structural reform but quickly warm to the subject.

"When the sex-abuse scandal started," says Mary Anne Keshner of Oak Park, Illinois, "I was very upset about it, but I still wanted to remain in the Catholic Church, and I thought that the Voice of the Faithful was a good response."

Her friend Lil Lewis, also of Oak Park, complains of the bishops' "slow motion" effort to address the crisis, a pace she argues would have been even slower without the constant pressure of the media and the threat of donations withheld. "[The bishops] still haven't repented," she says. "They're like Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague. He doesn't believe he did anything wrong, and the bishops don't believe they did anything wrong.

"Why aren't they more open?" she asks, wondering why financial and personnel records in dioceses across the country remain sealed from the public and curious prosecutors, then answers her own question. "The lawyers won't let them."

"Well, they can listen to Christ in prayer in their hearts, or they can remain fearful and listen to their lawyers," she says. The closed files should be open "not just to help the survivors but to do the gospel."

As for the future of the church, Lewis thinks the course will have to be charted by groups such as VOTF after "even the most conservative Catholics are disgusted" and laypeople step up and organize themselves into a force that the bishops will have to contend with. "They have never heard their own voice," she says of the laity. "They have never plotted their own destiny, but Boston was like the ride of Paul Revere.

"It is the duty of laypeople to speak now," Lewis says. "The only question is: where is the forum for them to do that?"

This article first appeared in the June 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic.