success stories

Catholic bishops dissatisfied with national policies adopted
to address child sexual abuse by clergy

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.

The recent US Catholic Bishops Conference in Dallas saw the passage of new policies to protect children from sexually abusive priests. The revised guidelines demand that any priest guilty of sexual abuse, including every case of past misconduct, be suspended from ministry. But some Catholic bishops believe the conference went too far and that unintended consequences will end up hurting the church. From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

Two weeks ago, under the watchful eye of the country's news media, Catholic bishops passed their new sexual abuse guidelines by a vote of 239 for, only 13 against, with 32 abstaining. The overwhelming margin of passage was understood to be a clear message from American Catholic bishops to the Vatican that new Canon Law was in order. But some bishops believe that in the process of demonstrating to the world that it was serious about protecting children, the conference sold out the church's older priests. Howard Hubbard has been the bishop for the Diocese of Albany, New York, for the last 25 years. Bishop HOWARD HUBBARD (Diocese of Albany, New York): It's true that many priests who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s who may have offended 30 or 40 years ago will now be removed from ministry. I think that presently each bishop is trying to figure out for himself what provision will be made for that individual.

GOODWYN: The bishop penned what came to be known as the Hubbard amendment. It would have allowed an independent panel, made up primarily of lay leaders, to review on a case-by-case basis the careers of older priests who may have had a past incident of sexual misconduct with a minor but who'd reformed and successfully served the church for decades. Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb oversees the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama.

Archbishop OSCAR LIPSCOMB (Diocese of Mobile, Alabama): The one thing I would have liked to have done that I didn't was to have asked for a vote on the Hubbard amendment which only got a voice vote. But by my count in the hall, there had to have been 75 or more who agreed with the position that Bishop Hubbard and I had.

GOODWYN: Bishop Lipscomb says there were many bishops who were concerned about the implications of the new policies on priests who were the bishops' contemporaries, men of their generation who've given the bishops a lifetime of service.

Archbishop LIPSCOMB: Once you've seen one case, you've seen one case. You simply cannot generalize into all cases on every circumstance, and that's what we did in this legislation.

GOODWYN: Lipscomb says there was intense pressure on the bishops because of the media attention. He believes that whatever momentum there was for a more measured approach was killed on the first morning of the conference when victims of sexual abuse gave angry and anguished testimony about their plight.

Archbishop LIPSCOMB: It is interesting that that whole morning session was given to a kind of a force-feeding to the bishops in a way that some, at least privately, would say was a little bit manipulative.

GOODWYN: Lipscomb says that the bishops could have protected Catholic children and still enacted a due process that would not have trampled the rights of priests.

Archbishop LIPSCOMB: This is connected with what I think is a sense of justice. First of all, in that we are enacting retroactive law and penalty, which violates, I think, a rather basic canon of justice in our country and, I would think, by reason of the natural law. And also because in the process they were never represented.

GOODWYN: Exactly how many of these older priests are there who had an incident years ago but then successfully reformed? Dozens? Hundreds? The Bishops Conference says it doesn't know. It will be up to the individual bishops themselves to try to figure that out in the coming months. And there is serious concern that this process of turning bishops into investigators will do irreparable harm to the relationship between a bishop and his priest. Bishop Joseph Sullivan is in Brooklyn.

Bishop JOSEPH SULLIVAN (Diocese of Brooklyn): It's so out of whack from my understanding of what it means to be a church and my understanding of what it means to be in the Christian tradition and ethic of forgiveness and healing. So, I mean, I was very unhappy with the outcome. I felt we had to do some things, but that whole part, for me, has unintended consequences. I could see a bishop calling to see a priest, and he says, 'Well, I'm bringing my lawyer with me.' I mean, is that what we want?

GOODWYN: Sullivan says he expects the new American policy will run into opposition in Rome. But Sullivan believes that as bad as the current crisis is, it has spawned for the church an opportunity.

Bishop SULLIVAN: This is deeply related not, you know, in and of itself, but deeply related to the pool of candidates we get for clergy for the future in terms of who we ordain and who can be ordained.

GOODWYN: Sullivan is not talking about banning homosexuals from the priesthood; he's talking about allowing priests to marry. Sullivan believes the current church crisis is connected to the church's demand of lifelong celibacy from its priests. Sullivan says that in his day the community held the priesthood in such esteem that even the most talented young men were willing to give up their sexual lives.

Bishop SULLIVAN: When I was ordained a priest, did the priest choose celibacy? They chose the priesthood. And if you said in my time would most of the guys have chosen to be priests if celibacy was not a condition? Yes. Did they choose to become priests in spite of celibacy? Yes. Today the world has changed. I was ordained in 1956. The world of the year 2002 is a very different world.

GOODWYN: Sullivan believes it used to be more clearly understood that celibacy was a gift given to the community by the young priest. He says now that's all changed.

Bishop SULLIVAN: In my time, celibacy was a mark of generosity of giving, all right. In today's world, celibacy is a sign that there's something--for a lot of people, it's a sign--particularly for young people--'What's the matter with you?' You know, 'Are you normal? Are you natural?' You know, is this such a great sign to young people, celibacy, today? It is to an older generation because they felt you gave up marriage and family and children, right. Today a lot of young people look on it, 'What's your problem?'

GOODWYN: Sullivan believes that without mandatory celibacy the church would tap into a broader and richer pool of talent. He urges his colleagues not to be afraid to discuss with the laity what he believes are these core challenges facing the Catholic Church.

Bishop SULLIVAN: Everyplace I go when I speak and whether it's a church on Sundays or its ceremonies or functions and the people appreciate the honesty of putting the issues on the table. And they feel it's their church and they want to be part of it and they want to contribute to it. They're not looking for the hunger of taking the church over. They want the church to become what it's supposed to be, a kind of community which is a sign of unity of all people.

GOODWYN: Bishops Joseph Sullivan, Oscar Lipscomb and Howard Hubbard all said that in spite of their concerns about portions of the church's new sexual abuse policy, they would implement it faithfully. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.