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The Vatican courts a schism

October 28, 2002

For 10 months, U.S. bishops of the Roman Catholic Church have tried, with little success, to regain the credibility they squandered in a sexual molestation scandal that many of them helped create. Meeting in Dallas last June, the bishops drafted a strategy for dealing with the fruits of that scandal. The bishops then forwarded their strategy to Rome to see whether their superiors would give their approval--and thus send a message that even if many American Catholics no longer trust the bishops to clean up their sorry debacle, at least the Vatican does.

Instead the Vatican publicly rejected the bishops' plan. Hoping to make the best of that decision, several U.S. bishops have said in recent days that Rome only wants to tweak the policies, not abandon them.

And yet it appears, less from the subtle wording of the Vatican's letter of rejection than from trenchant comments to reporters by unnamed "Vatican officials," that Rome views the bishops as weaklings who caved to public and news media demands for harsh treatment of accused sexual predators.

Let's be clear: As a private entity, the Roman Catholic Church is free to choose its leaders, run its internal business, and tweak or abandon its proposed policy documents any way it sees fit. It's also worth noting that the Vatican hasn't explicitly disclosed which parts of the bishops' sex abuse policies it finds objectionable. A commission of four U.S. bishops--including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford--and four Vatican leaders will try to reach a compromise.

But let's also be clear about the tremendous stakes here for the church, its hierarchy and its mission: This crisis stems from the predatory exploitation, molestation and rape of children by ordained clerics who craftily abused positions of trust. It stems from the astonishing fact that many bishops knowingly put new victims in the path of clerics they knew to be sexual predators by quietly transferring those criminals to new assignments. It stems from the fury among millions of American Catholics that all but a handful of those thoroughly discredited bishops still have their jobs--and their power.

This, then, is a crucial juncture for a church that wants to be more than the front office of a religion. In the U.S. the church has been the most powerful private educator, health-care provider, and voice for child welfare and other social justice issues. Whether the church now puts the defense of innocents first--or, instead, positions itself as a fortress primarily desperate to protect its miscreants and its autonomy--will determine whether it can escape the deep hole that criminal clerics and failed bishops have dug.

It is one thing for Vatican officials to question, as their letter to the U.S. bishops suggests, whether the policies drafted in Dallas wrongly deprive suspect priests of due process in certain circumstances by too swiftly driving them from their ministry. That is a fair question for the Vatican and the American bishops to resolve. So are other questions, such as whether the U.S. bishops, in their haste, failed to define sexual abuse with enough precision.

But it would be quite another matter for the Vatican to gut the U.S. policies so that, for example, bishops who receive accusations of sexual assaults are free not to inform police or prosecutors of what they've been told. Forcing bishops to report alleged crimes is absolutely mandatory if the church is to begin to regain the respect many of its U.S. leaders have jettisoned. As is, many of those bishops are viewed, accurately, as proven and chronic protectors of pedophiles.

Allowing the American bishops, of all people, to decide when or whether to notify law enforcement authorities of allegations against clerics would invite even more public disdain. It also would invite state legislatures across the country to craft new laws--a politically fueled process that could yield all sorts of mandates or mischief for the church. Whatever abuse policies the Vatican ultimately permits the bishops to enact will help individual legislators decide whether those new laws are necessary.

And the threats to the church are not just external. By hinting that American bishops have ceded too much oversight of their personnel decisions to lay Catholics or civil authorities, the Vatican courts a schism. Not some formal division that would create a U.S. church untethered from Rome, but rather a casual, even cynical rejection by many American Catholics of a Vatican that appears more concerned with preserving its dominion than with demanding new protocols to punish and prevent crimes of sexual abuse.

It was after Dallas that 82 percent of American Catholic respondents told pollsters for the Washington Post that bishops who had protected abusers should resign--and 86 percent said bishops who do not resign should be removed. Many Catholics blame the bishops' conspiracy of silence not only for enabling molestations to continue, but also for tarring tens of thousands of innocent priests with suspicion, and for legal settlements that have cost the church, its programs and its people hundreds of millions of dollars.

Cardinal George knows that the U.S. bishops have focused on the sins of priests--and not on his urging in Dallas that bishops who mishandled abuse cases suffer what he called "consequences." George should forcefully tell Rome that ousting those failed leaders is an inescapable first step toward restoring faith--among Catholics and non-Catholics alike--in the church and all it stands for. The cardinal also should insist that the Vatican, through the policies it approves, cut through the platitudes and show that its crisis agenda reaches far beyond due process for the accused.