A year after the U.S. bishops set their new national sex-abuse policy in Dallas, the bishops met in St. Louis. Commentators jumped on the opportunity to judge 12 months' worth of progress on the crisis.
Much of the commentary has been unhelpful. There seems to be an irresistible temptation for Catholics to assess the bishops harshly.
Too many Catholics react too quickly to emerging news about how bishops are handling the crisis. For instance, when California bishops balked at aspects of the review board's study questionnaire, uninformed and intemperate remarks were aired in the media and on the Internet.
When the facts were known, the California bishops' concerns were seen to be not only legitimate but also an enrichment of the review board's process.
The judgmental tone of poorly informed fault-finders in this and numerous other contexts illustrates a contemporary paradox. Commentators feel free to exercise a harshness toward the bishops that they would be the first to condemn if it were reciprocated.
If we balance the limitations of men and the severity of the problem, we can assess the bishops' progress more fairly and accurately.
Have the bishops done all things perfectly? No. As we have pointed out often before, the rights of accused priests need to be better taken into account in sex-abuse cases (many have been falsely charged). And many Catholics still say they feel like they are dealing with an impenetrable bureaucracy when dealing with their local bishop.
But have bishops ignored the problem altogether, engaging only in meaningless quick-fix solutions? No, that isn't true, either. An enormous effort is being made to solve this problem. Fairness demands the bishops receive full credit for it.
Two major things remain undone, however:
The Vatican-ordered seminary visitation.
When Pope John Paul II met with U.S. cardinals last year, he ordered an apostolic visitation of seminaries.
It's no wonder. Too many seminaries have been contributing to the very problems they are supposed to prevent.
The bishops had fair warning that this would happen, in a 1961 document that Pope John XXIII gave his authority to. Called “On the Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders,” the document spells out the dangers of allowing sexually incontinent candidates to become priests. Its teaching was echoed by the Second Vatican Council, which said in “On the Training of Priests” that the seminary's purpose is “to inculcate self-control.”
But more than a year after the cardinals' summit, seminary investigations have yet to be scheduled. It is vital that this be done soon.
A plenary council of bishops on root causes.
We said last June that there were signs that the springtime of the faith was permeating the bishops as well. Those signs became more obvious when a small group of bishops, soon joined by much greater numbers, proposed a plenary council that would address the root causes of the scandal.
What are those? John Paul spelled them out in his meeting with U.S. cardinals last year when he said American Catholics “must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.”
In St. Louis, bishops discussed three questions a plenary council would address: the need for catechesis, the role of laity and the spirituality of priests and bishops. These may not be the topics the media understand best, but they go to the heart of the crisis.
We applaud the plans to pursue seminary investigations and the plenary council. We hope that, by next year, there will be tangible progress to point to. In these initiatives, the bishops can find the lasting answers that will prevent today's bad headlines from being repeated again tomorrow.