National Catholic Register


Out of Dallas, Hope


BY Jim Cosgrove

June 23-29, 2002 Issue | Posted 6/23/02 at 1:00 PM


Repentance. Holiness. A new focus on the urgency and importance of the Church's teachings on sexual morality. These are the fruits of the Dallas meeting, bishops tell the Register.

If, last year at this time, these things were in the hearts of bishops, now they are at the forefront of their minds. If they were convinced of their need before, now they are committed and urgent about them.

These intangibles may be the most important result of the bishops' meeting in Dallas — results that can't be neatly summed up in a policy.

But a policy was made in Dallas as well. In assessing it, it's important to remember that the sex-abuse rules the bishops adopted are only the latest word, not the last, on what diocese will do in these cases.

There is much good in the policy. Bishops were already adopting stricter rules for dealing with sex-abuse cases; this will ensure that they all do. But there is also much to quibble with — as Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out, some of it has the feel of being conceived in a panic. Its broad definition of sex abuse, and its insistence that any accusation be turned over to civil authorities — not just credible ones — could enable grave injustices against priests who are innocent. If it is implemented, it will leave priests too vulnerable to the wild accusations that, as many a parish secretary will tell you, are all too common.

However, the policy that is implemented months hence may have none of these problems. The Vatican will have to sign off on the policy and, as the theologian-cardinal added, the Vatican isn't likely to reinforce its weak spots.

“The bishops are understandably concerned to show that they are taking bold and decisive measures,” he wrote in The New York Times before the meeting started. But “f they yield too much to the present atmosphere of panic, the Holy See can be relied upon to safeguard the theological and canonical tradition. The many levels of authority in the Church are a precious resource.”

Then there is the matter of jurisdiction. Individual bishops, not the conference, have authority in their own dioceses. It's an open question how binding a national policy will be on them. As will be clear in November when the bishops take the matter up again, the abuse policy is far from finished.

But what is finished are the media swarms of June. In Dallas, a national meeting featured the frightening stories of victims and the tearful apologies of bishops. It is unlikely that the story will be able to muster the elements needed to match its drama.

As important as the policy is, the awareness caused by that intense, national attention may be the real legacy of the June meeting. The attention was often unfair. (“Two-thirds of bishops let accused priests work,” screamed one headline — but the cases the story cited didn't all involve priests and didn't add up to two-thirds of bishops.) But it accomplished some good.

First, it helped the public to see that bishops are concerned and committed to solving the problems of clergy abuse. The caricature of our bishops as uncaring and unfeeling is hard to sustain in the face of their clearly sincere repentance. It would have been easy for bishops to take a different approach — after all, according to Associated Press less than half of 1% of priests are even accused of sexual abuse. But bishops owned up to their responsibilities and accepted painful public rebukes.

Second, the media attention taught an object lesson in applied morality. Sexuality is powerful and sacred. Its misuse doesn't merely violate finger-wagging rules of the past. It has painful consequences for everyone involved. As much as news outlets tried to claim that the problem wasn't about sexual disorders — from homosexuality to basic sexual immaturity — there is no escaping that this is precisely what the abuse problem is.

The bishops have come back from Dallas changed. They have sent an unmistakable message: Never again will the abuse of children by clergy be handled insensitively. But we knew that before they went.

The biggest change will be interior. And that's where the biggest difference will ultimately be made. Catholics want holy bishops, men of faith and courage. Dallas gave our bishops a step in the right direction.