Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Live Event/Special

Bishops' Conference Begins in Dallas

Aired June 13, 2002 - 10:03   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: As we said earlier, we are still waiting for the beginning of the -- the beginning of the meetings here with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They are right now taking care of little housekeeping matters before they get to the main part of the agenda, which is going to be the opening comments this morning from Bishop Gregory, who is the president of the conference.

Joining us to give us some perspective on what it is that we might expect to see and hear today is Father Thomas Reese, who is a Jesuit priest and he is author and editor of "America," a magazine for Catholic Americans, and he has covered these Bishops' Conference meetings for the past 20 years, and I am going to guess that you never ever expected to cover one quite like this.

FATHER THOMAS REESE, EDITOR, "AMERICA" MAGAZINE: No, this is really unique in my experience of following the Bishops' Conference for 20 years, the amount of media attention this has involved, the concern of people in the pews about what the bishops are going to be doing today. This is -- the bishops are really at a critical moment. People want to really be assured that children will not be in danger in the future, and they have got a big job ahead of them.

HARRIS: How about giving us some historical perspective. Where would you place this meeting?

REESE: Well, I think that this meeting is unique in that people are so concerned -- I mean, this is something that has touched the lives of the people in the pews. They are very upset with their bishops because some of them have moved priests -- bad priests from parish to parish. They want to make sure this doesn't happen again.

And another thing that is going to be very unusual and unique in this meeting is we are going to hear from the victims of abuse. Some bishops have heard from victims of abuse individually, but here is a chance that the victims have been asking for for a long time, to address the bishops. To tell them about their concerns, to make sure that the bishops understand the pain that they have gone through, to make sure that none of this kind of thing happens again.

HARRIS: Well, some of that addressing has already been happening, as a matter of fact. We heard quite a bit about a meeting that happened yesterday afternoon.

REESE: Yes, that's right. But there they were meeting with the Ad Hoc committee that is dealing with the sex abuse for the bishops. Here is their chance to speak to all of the bishops, and I think that is very important, very symbolic.

They get the microphone in front of almost 300 bishops in national coverage and television, and they get a chance to tell their story, and I think this is very important for the victims too, because it's -- no one believed them in the past. Everything was hidden. And to empower them, to be able to speak their message to the bishops and to the public is extremely important in their healing process.

HARRIS: Well, what can you tell us about how it was decided who would be allowed to speak before the entire collection of bishops? As I understand it, there was a bit of controversy coming in. It was because groups were asking to come in, and the bishops were saying they didn't (ph) have that much time or that much room for everyone.

REESE: Well, the people who have finally been allowed to speak are people that come from the main groups that represent the victims, groups like Linkup and SNAP. There was some controversy going back and forth because one of the SNAP was involved in litigation, suing the bishops, and some people didn't think it was quite appropriate for them to be speaking if they were in the middle of a suit with the bishops. That was all cleared up. There was lots of misunderstanding and miscommunication. But what is important now is that the victims will be able to speak, be able to get their message directly to the bishops.

HARRIS: Also joining us here to help us begin to flesh out our full coverage of the events today is Jason Carroll, who has been following this story, I should say, for quite a long time. And, your thoughts as we sit here on the verge of the beginning of these -- this meeting, and the opening words of Bishop Gregory.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm still curious about what the Committee on Sexual Abuse has done. A source within the church tells us that the Committee on Sexual Abuse has come up with a plan, really, to toughen the proposal that they will be presenting to the bishops today.

Currently -- the current proposal that the bishops are looking at deals with zero tolerance in terms of all future cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, but it really leaves the door open in terms of some situations dealing with past cases. But a highly placed source within the church tells me that the bishops are now considering a plan to toughen the proposal in terms of dealing with past cases, and considering changing the draft so that these one time offenders from past cases would be permanently suspended from the priesthood, which basically means you cannot wear the collar, you cannot call yourself a priest, you cannot perform any sort of priestly duties.

Now, that is not the same thing as being laicized or defrocked -- that is a type of process where you have to go through the Vatican. In fact, early this morning, Archbishop John Myers spoke about this particular issue, and he weighed in on what exactly the sexual -- committee of sexual abuse talked about. In fact, he sits on this committee, and he talked about this issue early this morning.


JOHN MYERS, BISHOP, NEW JERSEY: If I were to characterize the movement right now, without using the word "zero tolerance," I think we would say we are moving towards a no involvement in priestly ministry for anyone who has committed any violation or crime or sin of this nature.


CARROLL: One point that is not in the current proposal, and that is the issue of accountability. In other words, how in the world do you sanction or punish a bishop if he chooses not to follow the mandatory policy that is adopted here in Dallas.

Maybe we can bring in Father Reese about that. A lot of people, Leon, as you know, feel as though the bishops are unable to police themselves. There is nothing here in the paperwork that says how a bishop should be sanctioned, and how is the Catholic Church -- how are they going to restore the confidence of the people?

REESE: Yes, that's a key point, to make sure that bishops are accountable, that they actually do fulfill the obligations under this charter. In order to make it mandatory on every bishop in the country, it has to go to Rome for approval, and Rome can make it mandatory on each bishop.

But interestingly, I think that the Committee on Sex Abuse found a very creative solution to this. What it is is that they are going to establish an office that will report on an annual basis publicly, so that everybody knows what each bishop has done in terms of implementing this charter every year. So we will know whether or not the bishop is implementing it.

And, you know, what is going to happen then is to people in his diocese, the media in his diocese, are going to know whether or not this bishop is with the program, and how far he has gone. That's what is going to hold the bishop's feet to the fire. I have more confidence in the media pressuring the bishops to get this job done right, than I do in any kind of mandatory policy coming out of the Vatican. The media is on the local scene, and can can watch and see what the bishop is doing. So when it is made public, that's what is going to make the bishop accountable this time.

HARRIS: Father Reese, let me ask you to explain something further that Jason called (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this idea about a permanent suspension possibly being the third way out of this, as opposed to what the other options, besides defrocking a priest, the third way being -- you know, either leaving him alone in place to continue practicing or to defrock them, which would mean to basically take away their titles, or this permanent suspension.

How does -- what's the difference for a lay person like myself? How would you explain that difference? REESE: Well, the -- clearly, I think the bishops have learned through terrible experience, a danger it is to just move a priest from place to place, and leave him in ministry. What they can do is suspend him from ministry. That means he cannot work in a parish. He cannot wear his Roman collar. He can cannot say Mass. He cannot give the sacraments. He cannot act as a priest. In other words, he is out of ministry. It is like a policeman is suspended, you know, he can't -- he can't be a cop. He can't operate as a cop.

On the other hand, laicization. What that means is that the priest is actually thrown out of the priesthood. His relationship with his diocese is terminated completely. In fact, he is released from the promises of his vows. If he wants to get married, he can get married. So the problem with laicization is, if the priest is willing to be laicized, if he signs the dotted line, it is not a big problem.

But in order to force a priest out, there are lots of protections in canon law, of due process. It is a funny thing here that the Vatican, in fact, sounds very much like the ACLU in this case, where they are concerned about the rights of the accused, that they are innocent until proven guilty. They have a right to a lawyer. They have a right to a trial. They have -- if they are convicted, they have a right to appeal. A forced laicization process can take years, just like a criminal trial in case -- in U.S. courts can take years.

So, what the bishops would really like is a quicker, speeder process of doing these laicizations, and to do that, they have to have Rome's approval. So, a way around that is simply suspending -- suspending, you know, so he cannot act as a priest ever again.

CARROLL: And also, Leon, if I could add to that, there is one other sort of point here. Let's say that you have this one time offender from -- you know, from the past, and he hasn't had any offenses since that point. You decide to permanently suspend this priest. Let's say he is 60, 70 years old, what do you do? Do you then put that priest out on the street, where he might then have access to children. If you permanently suspend this priest, you could still -- the church could still then take that priest and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) him in a monastery, if you will, or -- there is still a way, there is still a mechanism to keep your eye on that particular person.

REESE: That's a very good argument that has been made for not laicizing them. Because we know, in fact, some priests who left the priesthood and are no longer priests, have gone on to do more abuse, to baby sitters, or other people. You know, and it had nothing to do with them being priests. If the church keeps some kind of supervision on them, society might be better off. The bishops, on the other hand, are very concerned about legal liability. If they continue to have any kind of supervision, you know, they don't want to be hauled into court again on this kind of thing, or be responsible for these priests who commit these kinds of crimes.

HARRIS: But there is another practical consideration that comes to mind. Jason and I talked about this briefly before you arrived, Father Reese. Is -- when you consider the fact that no one knows how many priests we're talking about, who may actually be in that situation that Jason has just described, they could possibly be facing a permanent suspension here, they may be up in age.

Because many of these names that we have been seeing -- for instance, those that were published yesterday in the "Dallas Morning News," these are older gentlemen, older priests who have been in the priesthood -- in the priesthood for quite some time. When you consider that no one knows how many of them there are, what does that do to the ranks of the priesthood?

Are we talking here about suddenly waking up one day, say, perhaps, Monday morning and finding out that we are on the verge of having an incredible, never before seen shortage of priests?

REESE: Well, I think -- you know, we may see, you know, a couple hundred priests that are -- would be subject to forced laicization under this procedure, and under this process that the bishops are considering. The bishops are taking this very seriously, and they want these people away from children, and they want to make sure that the parishes are safe. Now, they can also do that by simply suspending them.

HARRIS: All right. We are going to take a step away from here on the outside, and let's go inside. Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is beginning his remarks.


BISHOP WILTON GREGORY, PRESIDENT, USCCB: ... the press will be taking some photographs, and I just wanted to alert you to their presence. This is an early morning photo opportunity that will not last too long.

Our first order of business is the introduction and welcome of our new members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I would like to invite them to stand at their places, so that we can welcome them and have an opportunity to see them.

Our first new member is the Most Reverend Robert D. Conlan (ph), bishop of Steubinville (ph).

Thank you.

The Most Reverend Francisco Gonzales, auxiliary bishop of Washington.

The Most Reverend Kevin Farrell, auxiliary bishop of Washington.

The Most Reverend James Fitzgerald, auxiliary bishop of Joliet.

The Most Reverend Robert J. Foos (ph), bishop of Covington.

The Most Reverend Donald J. Kettler, bishop of Fairbanks.

The Most Reverend John M. Kudrick, bishop of the Byzantine Eparchy of Parma.

The Most Reverend Sarhad Jammo, the bishop of the Eparchy of Saint Peter the Apostle of San Diego of the Chaldeans.

HARRIS: Now, what we are listening to right now is the very beginning of the morning's program here. This is the president of the U.S. Catholic -- sorry, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And Wilton Gregory, he is the bishop there. He is introducing some of the new members of the USCCB.

And so the fact they have got a quite a bit of -- they have quite few members, and names to go through right now, and a couple of other items as well on their agenda. So, we are going to step away and take a break right now.