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Catholic Bishops Meet in Dallas

Aired June 13, 2002 - 11:02   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now let's go back to Dallas, where our Leon Harris is anchoring our coverage of the church sex crisis from the conference of Catholic bishops -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Daryn.

Yes, as we just said moments ago, we just witnessed a remarkable speech made by the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops here. And now they moved on into the program into presentations by lay persons who are making presentations on various subjects before this conference of bishops.

And then after that, we are also going to be expecting to hear words from some victims of sexual abuse. And there actually has been jockeying about how many of them are going to be allowed to come in and make presentations. I'm not sure yet if we know exactly how many, but we're going to be dipping in and listening to some of that in just a moment.

But I just wanted to introduce our guests who are with us this morning.

Father Thomas Reese has been analyzing most of what we've been hearing this morning. He's also been quite impressed with the presentations that we've heard so far, and also some of the indication of some of the deliberations that have been going on behind the scenes here.

And Jason Carroll, who has been our reporter here who has been covering this story for sometime as well, also joins us.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And just want to talk a little bit more about the speech that Bishop Wilton Gregory gave. It was remarkable, wasn't it? I mean, he used the word "apology" several times, at one point saying that this crisis is about a lost confidence and failure to address the issue of sexual abuse. He also admitted that the church did not go far enough in terms of protecting children. He said also that the church needs reconciliation that will heal.

Another point that I thought was interesting here, he said that he worried more about the scandal than he did about the openness that could have prevented abuse. Interesting point there as well.

Also, a very special message to the victims. He talked about the victims and the victims' families, saying that the church has learned how devastating sexual abuse has been on the victims as well as family members. He talked about that.

Let's listen to a little bit more about what he had to say.


BISHOP WILTON GREGORY, PRESIDENT, USCCB: In my own name, and in the name of all of the bishops, I express a profound apology to each of you who have children or family members who have suffered sexual abuse by a priest or another representative of the church. I am deeply, and will be, forever sorry for the harm that you have suffered as a parent or loved one of a victim survivor. We ask your forgiveness.


CARROLL: Bishop Gregory also saying that the victims out there may not have come forward at this point. He also wants those victims to come forward and talk to their local bishops, their local cardinals as well.

He also talked about forgiveness. He said that this is a time for forgiveness, not only for asking for parishioners to forgive them, but also for those in the church to forgive each other. And I have to wonder if in some way or shape or form just talking in some way about some of those who have been heavily criticized throughout this crisis. Specifically, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who has come under quite a bit of criticism for moving priests accused of sexual abuse up there in Boston from parish to parish.

Bishop Gregory, at this point, also saying that we need those who are in the church to forgive each other.

HARRIS: Yes. And interesting, though, the way this speech was crafted, that idea of forgiveness did not come up until very late in the speech, after numbers and numbers of apologies were made. And since you bring up that possibility of there being some criticism there within the ranks of bishops against some -- like those -- Cardinal Law, as you mentioned -- let's bring in Father Reese, who is with us as well.

You said that you noticed in the comments that Bishop Gregory made in his opening speech this morning that there was evidence of that.

REV. THOMAS REESE, "AMERICA" MAGAZINE: Yes, I think so. I mean, someone like Bishop Gregory, for example, has -- you know went into the diocese of Belleville. He was appointed there at a time when there were 13 priests accused of sexual abuse.

He cleaned up that mess. He went in there and he got those people out of ministry and made -- his priority was to make sure that no one ever suffered again from an abusive priest. And there were other bishops who did the same thing, and they are very angry at the other -- at some of the bishops who didn't do this, who didn't take this as seriously, who didn't remove these priests from ministry and just kept moving them around.

So there's anger down in that body of bishops about the activities of some of the bishops.

HARRIS: Let me talk one more time about the accountability issue, because I want to bring up something -- play a little bit further on what Jason brought up moments ago. The comments that Bishop Gregory made about those in the church right now who may have suffered sexual abuse and have not reported it, he did encourage them to come out and report it to their bishops.

But that's not all he said. He also said to report it to the civil authorities. And for those who are watching to see whether or not there was going to be any parsing here or whether or not any more attempts at self protection here, that seemed to make it clear that there would be none of that.

REESE: Yes. It sounds like they got it finally. But it has to go to the civil authorities; it has to be public. There's no more sweeping this under the rug.

HARRIS: Which means that the possibility of more litigation is something that the bishop is not backing away from.

REESE: That's right.

HARRIS: All right. Well let's go back to the conference and join in and listen to some of the presentations that are being now made in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


SCOTT APPLEBY, PRESENTER: ... scandal is the behavior and attitude of some of the Catholic bishops. Not just then, 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, when the abusive priests were reassigned, but even now, after all the sorry revelations to date.

They are saying that the bishops even now have not yet engaged the victims in a way that conveys that the church begins to comprehend the profoundly devastating effect of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. One whose hands also consecrate the Eucharist, baptize the infant, and forgive the sinner.

If a bishop had any idea how soul-shattering the loss of self- esteem, how deep the wounds of betrayal the people are saying, he could never have contemplated, even for a moment, putting other children in jeopardy by relinquishing his moral authority to a therapist or by bowing to the pressure of the pastoral need for active priests. Or, what is worse, by being governed by a misguided sense of sympathy for brother priest.

They are saying, most distressingly, that the seminaries and the priesthood have been made vulnerable to the unstable and to the immoral. And that some of you bishops are complicit in this development. They are saying what months ago would have been unthinkable, that the church is not safe for the innocent, the young, the vulnerable. That it is morally bankrupt.

Astonishingly, they are saying this of the church whose priests and religious have nurtured the weak, fed the hungry, educated and informed generations of their children and grandchildren. They are saying this about the bishops who have spoken the truth before the political powers of this nation and who continue to testify on behalf of the marginalized, the weak, the unborn, and the other defenseless ones in American society.

They are saying this of the priests and women, religious and lay ministers who built vast expanses of the social service infrastructure of this nation and contributed to some of its most glorious achievements as a democratic society. They are saying that the failures of the hierarchy extend here arrogation of unchecked authority over finances and legal strategies, extending the cover-ups and fiscal malfeasance.

They are saying that some members of the hierarchy, including those at the center of the storm, remain unrepentant and even defiant, blaming the culture, the media, or their opponents for the disgrace that has been visited on them. They are saying that you are divided among yourselves and that some of you even take pleasure or comfort in the travails of rivaled bishops.

I am saddened to report from our perch here at the Texan equivalent of Caesarea Philippi, that they are saying all of these things. And let us not even consider what our enemies are saying.

And what are your priests saying? Not much. They are reeling, suffering untold pain. And they would be in hiding shame faced and feeling abandoned were it not for some of your and for their parishioners, the people to whom these more than 40,000 priests daily minister, knowing that their priests are good, heroic, and often holy men, refuse to hold them accountable for the egregious sins of the few.

In their collective wisdom, the faithful hold priests accountable for their behavior, no more, no less. They want to know if the priest keeps his promises and vows, if he remains celibate, whatever his sexual orientation, and if he is kind and filled with the spirit of self-denying love. On this matter of reassigning predatory priests, the apologies issuing from bishops and cardinals will not be heard unless and until they go beyond the rhetoric of mistakes and errors and name the protection of abusive priests for what it is: a sin born of the arrogance of power.

The bitter fruit of clericalism is the often unreflected-upon assumption that by virtue of ordination alone a priest is spiritually and morally superior to the laity. This is difficult for some of you to hear, and some of you will refuse even now to listen to it. But I remind you that a remarkable and, to my mind, encouraging development in response to danger we now face is the fact that Catholics on the right and the left and in the deep middle all are in basic agreement as to the causes of this scandal: a betrayal of fidelity enabled by the arrogance that comes with unchecked power. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) said that one of the most devastating effects of sin is the sinner's inability to recognize his behavior as sinful. Sin's cloaking of its presence occurs whenever a bishop, archbishop or cardinal assumes quietly that he is accountable to no one but God and perhaps the Holy Father. That only he, as the successor to the apostles, knows what is best for the Church.

This is an outrageous assumption, and it is the deepest source of the anger currently being unleashed upon all of you, including unfairly those of you have overcome the temptation to the sin of clericalism in your own ministries.

The role of women in the church is a topic that deserves full and separate consideration. But the marginalization of women, wherever it exists in the church, counts among the most devastating effects of clericalism on the morale and vitality of the people of God. Women are outsiders on two counts, being neither male nor ordained, and so are among the most frequent recipients of the aloofness and disregard that is a sign of clericalism.

Given that women, religious and laywomen, not only helped build the church in this country, but have been the primary formers of faith in children from birth to adulthood, we cannot afford to lose credibility on questions of sex and gender. But that credibility has been shattered, at least temporarily, by the current crisis.

Faced with this litany of accusations, the world wants to know one thing: Why would anyone in his right mind want to be a Catholic bishop today? My concluding remarks proceed upon the assumption that each of you has a compelling answer to that question and is prepared to defend the church with all your heart and mind and will.

Where is the path out of this disaster? I do not envy you, the enormously difficult decisions before you. And I will not presume to suggest how you should vote on the controversial provisions of the draft document prepared by the ad hoc committee. But allow me to make three general points that I ask you to consider as you deliberate.

Number one, the crisis is primarily a moral crisis. It is also now a pastoral crisis and an institutional crisis, the latter entailing complex finance and legal considerations. These three dimensions of the church's presence in U.S. society are interrelated. Loss of confidence in the moral judgment of some of the priests and bishops places the Church in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis the legal system and the civil authorities, who will no longer give the Church a wide berth when it comes to the conduct of its employees.

These various dimensions of the crisis are addressed in a document entitled "Challenges and Opportunities Arising From the Current Crisis," which father Edward Malloy, CSC, President of the University of Notre Dame, sent to all the U.S. Catholic bishops on May the 22nd. The document was prepared by a church study committee appointed by Father Malloy.

We have grouped our reflections under three headings: restoring trust, exercising stewardship, and seeking wisdom. In my full text, I summarize our recommendations, but I urge you to consider the entire report carefully.

Number two, the church institutionally is a unique presence in American history. It is not a public trust in the legal sense, but it clearly has a public face and acts as a public trust in the moral sense. The current crisis has removed any doubt that the church in the United States must understand itself as a national body and act accordingly. This will not diminish, but enhance fidelity to both the local and to the universal Church.

There is no threat of a Gallican model, one that privileges national over Roman -- that is, universal jurisdiction. But has it ever been clearer to us that what occurs in the church in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles can have immediate repercussions for the church in Iowa, Ohio or Washington?

And yet the crisis has also revealed that the present procedures and structures of the USCCB are inadequate to address the governance of the church on this level. It may be helpful if you explain to the nonspecialist -- that is, most all of us -- at least in general terms, the relationship between the Vatican and the USCCB, and between canon law and civil law in this particular case.

Rome has been very cautious, to say the least, in granting authority to the national Episcopal conferences. And I believe that the laity have or will have difficulty understanding what appears to be a counterproductive level of oversight. Please pardon the question, but it is a natural one: Are you trusted by the Vatican?

It seems incredible to the interested outsider that on matters of faith and morals you would veer one millimeter from orthodoxy. Those of you who are canon lawyers know the challenge of applying canon law within a specific local and national environment. The state and civil society in, say, Honduras or Poland, present different challenges to the church than does the U.S. government and legal system.

To the extent possible, then, I urge you to formulate the policies that make the most sense for this environment without anticipating how the Vatican might respond. Let Rome be Rome. It will be in any case.

Thinking -- thank you. Any sign of positive is a good thing. Thinking and acting nationally as well as locally and universally will enhance the church's effectiveness and thus bolster its authority. Everyone is relieved that a national policy will be deliberated and adopted at this meeting.

But will that policy have teeth? Will it be enforceable and enforced? In the current climate it will not; it will not be enough to say that no bishop would refuse to implement the new policies. Each bishop must be held directly accountable and his diocese evaluated for compliance on a regular basis.

HARRIS: This is Scott Appleby we've been listening to. He's a layperson who has been laying out for the bishops assembled here and now in what is amounting to a very, very hard look in the mirror. He's been giving them the lay of the land as far as the laity and how the laity has been viewing both the Church and this body in the wake of this crisis. And the words here have not been very easy to take.

He's been saying here that apologies are not going to be heard unless the leaders go further and actually call it a sin. Call what has happened a sin and call what the priests have been doing sinners and actually do something about it and not just talk about it and not just apologize.

And he also said what that what he's also witnessing among the laity is something of a remarkable development as well. He says Catholics across the spectrum, both left, center, and on the right are all saying this infidelity was aided by the arrogance of unchecked power, like we were seeing in effect here.

We're joined also now by another guest who has been listening to this. And we want to get her thoughts on this -- Sister Bridget Mary Meehan, who is a figure in the Catholic media by her own right. And she's also been listening.

And I noticed you actually were remarking a couple times as we were listening to Mr. Appleby's comments.

SISTER BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: Yes, I think we need -- I think we need action from bishops. We need structural change in the Church at this point. I think words of apology, as important as they are, and they were heartfelt from Bishop Gregory this morning, I think more is needed.

I think we need to make the changes. The hard changes that change the structure of the church, so that women are included and have a voice. And we have a new partnership model. Unprecedented of the national organization, the Federation of Christian Ministries, it's been around for 30 years. Married priests and women and people from other faiths in partnership. And we are treated as equals and we minister as equals. And we have a democratic governance. I think this is what the church needs now more than ever. They need new vision and courage to embrace a new structure. Let the laity have a real voice in decision-making.

HARRIS: But what we're hearing Mr. Appleby saying about that as well, he did mention, just as you were being seated here, he said that the role of women in the church is something of a two-fold marginalization. They're not men, and they're not priests.

And you're saying that more courage is needed to do something about that and actually resolve that change to prevent this kind of crisis from ever coming again?

MEEHAN: Right. What we're missing in this conversion is that women and girls have been abused. And in the developing countries, nuns have been abused -- victims of rape. This is a far larger story than just the United States, what we're watching here in Dallas with the bishop dealing with this.

This is Catholic church broad issue of abuse. And women are part of the abuse story. So I think women need to be partners at the table of discussing how to resolve this. And in the decision-making, God puts out the standards and evaluates the actions.

In fact, I would like to see us go to an earlier tradition of electing the bishops, since two-thirds of our bishops apparently have kept these men and priest abusers working in the local parishes. I think there's a horrible crisis right now of credibility for bishops. And I think the bishops who have covered up need to resign, period.

I think that would restore a lot of confidence, and I think we need to have women and men at the table helping to resolve this crisis to put new structures of accountability in. This is like putting you finger on a dike. And the thing is ready to explode. The dam is ready to explode.

We have got to do more. I think we're falling short again, and it's a worldwide issue. And I think the Vatican needs to be called to accountability on this, big time.

HARRIS: Wouldn't you have a dam of another kind exploding here -- to use your terminology here -- if you did have something like resignations by all the bishops that you mentioned just moments ago? Because if you believe all the reports that we've been seeing, specifically the one in "The Dallas Morning News" yesterday, that perhaps two-thirds of all of the bishops may have been part of some sort of cover-up or whatever, what would you be doing to the church if that were to happen, if all of them were to resign?

MEEHAN: Well I think that two-thirds -- if they are guilty, of covering up pedophiles and reassigning clergy, then they should resign. We have a lot of talented people out there. We have a lot of talented priests. We call forth new leadership.

I think it's a crisis in confidence. I think we do need new leadership. If they are incapable of doing the right thing and protecting our children and responding, I think they need to be replaced. I think they need to be resigned.

HARRIS: What would happen for the church in the meantime, however, between the time you have all of these bishops resign and then you have others appointed somehow, some way, how much damage would be done by that?

MEEHAN: I think we have enough people in our Church, very talented people, on dioceses and councils that could help in that process. We could put a process in place. But I really think that it needs to happen, because their credibility is gone. How can we trust them to fix a problem that they are the cause of the abuse of power. Their credit is gone for reassigning these priests to these parishes that are known pedophiles, are known abusers.

HARRIS: There's one other big obstacle to all of that. Whatever happens here has to be approved by the Vatican. And just moments ago we heard Mr. Appleby say that the laity is even questioning whether or not the Vatican trusts these bishops.

MEEHAN: Well, I think the Vatican is a large part of the problem. I think their credibility is also on the line right now. If they do not adopt real structural change, I think they're going to lose credibility throughout the world.

This is a crisis moment, not just for the United States Church, but for the whole worldwide Church. It's a lack of trust, and I think we absolutely have to have a new way, a new vision, a partnership model of people responding with integrity.

We need leaders that have integrity that we can trust. We've lost trust in these leaders.

HARRIS: And we also hear Bishop Gregory address that in his opening remarks. We'll talk about that some more.




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