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US Catholic bishops need to use tomorrow's meeting to properly address the current sex abuse scandal if they want their influence in American society to continue.

At the bishops meeting in Dallas, the official discussion will be about the sex abuse scandal only. All other topics have been taken off the agenda. Commentator Gustav Niebuhr isn't surprised.


Ever since the current crisis began, the American Catholic hierarchy has seemed to lose its public voice. This is a striking departure, because the American bishops have a tradition of speaking out about major issues in American society and the world at large. Typically, their words carry great weight, with policy-makers right up to the White House, with the news media and with many other Americans.

Late in May, for example, Bishop Wilton Gregory--he's president of the bishops conference and, therefore, can speak for the bishops as a body--endorsed the new nuclear weapons treaty between the United States and Russia. He also called for more cuts in nuclear weapons, as well as a pledge by the United States never to be first to use nuclear arms. But how many people heard him?

What a difference that is from a year ago. Last August, when the country was caught up in a national debate on the merits of stem cell research, the Catholic bishops were regarded as among the most outspoken and influential voices opposing it. Now what, you might ask, compels them to take such stands? Why not just quietly tend the flock as the leaders of some other faiths do? Well, to put it simply, the bishops' view of the world is shaped by Catholic social teachings. Those teachings, developed through theological statements by the popes at top-level church meetings, draw from the Bible, faith and reason to express such principles as a concern for human rights.

The bishops have used this tradition powerfully and publicly. In the 1980s, they published two major pastoral letters. One letter critiqued government policy on the possible use of nuclear weapons; the other called for greater action on behalf of America's poor. Both touched off public discussions that went well beyond the church and lasted for months.

We've also heard the bishops speak out against abortion and doctor-assisted suicide, demand protection for immigrants' rights, express a concern for the environment and seek debt relief for poor nations. To be sure, the bishops aren't alone. There are other religious leaders--for example, in the Episcopal Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Reform Judaism--who speak out on issues from their own traditions. But none of these groups have quite the organization, the staff and, let's face it, the sheer numbers behind them as the bishops.

Will the meeting in Dallas begin to repair the damage? A committee of bishops has developed a sweeping draft proposal to that end. It's posted on the bishops' Web site. Just below it are various other documents related to the crisis grouped together under the heading 'Restoring Trust.' That's the bishops' imperative: to restore trust in their moral authority. Only by so doing can they be effective leaders within their own church, and also regain their public pulpit so that they can speak out on the issues and people will hear them once again.

HANSEN: Gustav Niebuhr is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.