Signs of the Times

Bishops Respond to Dallas Actions with Reflection, Promises

Bishops around the country assured their people that they intend to make certain their dioceses follow the new policies on handling cases of sexual abuse by priests that were approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on June 14. In comments to the press, statements and columns in their diocesan newspapers, bishops said they would fully support the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Some remarked that the bishops’ overwhelming support for the charter was an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the crisis.

The charter and accompanying norms require that any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor be reported to civil authorities and that if the allegation is proven, the priest be removed permanently from ministry and, in most cases, laicized or removed from the priesthood. It also calls for each diocese to have a lay-run review board and establishes a national office for handling such cases, as well as a national lay review board.


It is an acknowledgment that, as a body, we have erred in the past, wrote Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami in a column for The Florida Catholic newspaper: first, in not believing the victims as often as we should have; second, in believing that abusive priests could be cured’ of their illness; third, in not reporting allegations to civil authorities, who are better trained and equipped to determine credibility. Archbishop Favalora said the bishops went as far as we possibly could in terms of church law, because neither an individual bishop nor the entire conference has the power to laicize or defrock a priest.

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., who serves on the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, said the actions of the bishops raised the standard of conduct, which will not be lowered for anyone who ministers in our church, and established a strong measure of performance for those of us who are responsible for leading her. In a column for The Catholic Advocate, his archdiocesan newspaper, he said there is no person in ministry in the Newark Archdiocese against whom there is a credible charge of child abuse, past or present.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington also said his archdiocese has nobody in ministry with a credible allegation of sexual abuse. He told The Catholic Standard, his archdiocesan newspaper, that he had been hesitant to support the charter’s no-strikes policy of removing from ministry everyone against whom there has been a credible charge of sexual abuse. It was obvious it was the mood of the people in the church, Cardinal McCarrick said. I heard that from people in our parishes and so did the other bishops. Hearing the stories of victims also helped him see that the resolution of the bishops had to be strong, he added.

New York’s Cardinal Edward M. Egan told parishioners at St. Charles Parish on Staten Island on June 16 that this is a harsh day. These are terrible times. And we are all outraged, scandalized. He said the church needs to pick up the pieces, and we will.

Several prelates referred to criticism that the bishops did little to police their fellow bishops. Some are disappointed that no bishops, archbishops or cardinals resigned during the meeting in acknowledgment that they had not handled these cases appropriately in the past, said Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., in a column for The Florida Catholic, his diocesan newspaper. However, he said, by choosing Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma to be chairman of the national review board, the conference has made certain that a strong, clear, independent voice is now in place to examine and evaluate every bishop and diocese in the United States, he wrote. Governor Keating has made clear to us that he would not hesitate to call for the resignation of any bishop who does not follow the charter and norms.

Cardinal McCarrick said in his interview that the majority of bishops have acted responsibly in abuse cases and those who have not have already suffered because of the loss of [their] reputation. Bishop Lynch told his diocesan newspaper in an interview, I wouldn’t want to be the bishop who ignored this.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami said the charter includes a harsh policy, but not necessarily an unjust one.... Given the fact that the bishops have lost credibility when it comes to judging when a priest is fit for ministry or not, we had to do what we had to do.

Atlanta’s Archbishop John F. Donoghue told The Georgia Bulletin, the archdiocesan newspaper, that he expects there will be ongoing tension after the meeting. Our priests are going to feel we are on kind of a witch hunt now, he said. They could be accused and they are out. I can see why good priests would be fearful.

Cardinal McCarrick noted that some groups have used the media spotlight on the church to attack the teachings of the church, especially regarding life, the family and morality. But those who believe in God, have nothing to fear from the truth, ultimately, because God is truth.

Meanwhile, as a result of the new policy, priests were removed from ministry in the dioceses of Chicago, Crookston, Detroit, Louisville, San Jose, Scranton, St. Cloud and St. Paul-Minneapolis. In Evansville, Ind., Father Michael Allen was removed as pastor of St. Peter Parish in Celestine. Father Allen, who sexually abused a teenager in 1976, had received national news coverage before the bishops’ meeting as an example of a former offender who repented and converted and was loved by his parishioners.

Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago announced the removal of eight priests from all priestly ministry on June 23 because of credible accusations against them in the past. Three of them were pastors, one an associate pastor, one a hospital chaplain, two were working in administrative jobs, and one was a 72-year-old retiree assisting with weekend Masses. Cardinal George said five of the priests plan to appeal their removal, while two plan to resign from the priesthood. The retired priest will no longer be able to celebrate Mass publicly or present himself as a priest.

The Rev. Thomas R. Malia was asked to resign as pastor of two Baltimore parishes when it was learned that he had hired Robert Gee in 1999 as interim music director of one of the parishes, knowing that Gee had been convicted of sexual abuse of a teenager two years earlier. A diocesan spokesman said the priest likely would be assigned to another parish, but not as a pastor.

In Augusta, Me., Bishop Joseph J. Gerry of Portland and Auxiliary Bishop Michael R. Cote met for more than two hours on June 20 with 10 alleged abuse survivors and heard their stories of being sexually abused by priests as children. Participants described it as an intense, emotional session. The following day the Maine attorney general’s office announced that it had completed its review of diocesan personnel files on 33 priests, none of whom is still active in ministry. The state office distributed case files to local prosecutors to determine if any could lead to criminal charges.

Louisville’s Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly on June 20 named the first members of a new advisory board to handle allegations of sexual abuse and announced that victims of such abuse by priests will be offered free counseling through the University of Louisville.

Many Want Bishops Disciplined If They Do Not Remove Abusers

Most Catholics polled for a new survey said that Pope John Paul II should discipline bishops who do not remove known abusers from ministries where they can abuse minors. Participants in the poll by LeMoyne College and Zogby International said that the current sex abuse scandal has not affected their commitment to the church and that they agree with the steps the U.S. bishops are taking to address the problem.

The telephone survey asked 506 Catholics nationwide their opinions about how the scandal should be handled and how it has affected their involvement in the church. About 96 percent said the pope should take disciplinary action against bishops who do not remove abusers from ministry where they have contact with minors. Around 75 percent said they had not changed either how much money they contribute or how much time they are involved at their parishes.

Given statements about possible actions by church leaders, 77 percent said they agreed that a public apology, a penitential liturgy and a commitment to reach out to victims by U.S. bishops would help achieve reconciliation with the Catholic community and restore trust in their leadership. About the same percentage agreed that every diocese should have a lay-controlled board to oversee how diocesan finances are spent in settling lawsuits over sex abuse. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included both those measures in its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, approved on June 14.

Nearly 84 percent of those polled said they think allegations of child sexual abuse should be dealt with as a legal matter, with the church turning over all relevant information to police.

Religious Leaders Urge More Generosity in TANF Program

More than 20 U.S. religious leaders, including two Catholics, are urging senators to be more generous in their reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF. The biblical mandate is clear: We are called to assist poor and hungry people, and especially to provide a better life for children. We believe that government must lead the way in creating that opportunity, they said in a letter to senators on June 12. Please strengthen TANF in ways that will make it possible for families to leave poverty behind as they work to achieve self-sufficiency, they said. The Catholic signers of the letter were John L. Carr, secretary of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Social Development and World Peace, and Kathy Thornton, R.S.M., national coordinator of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

Two provisions in the House version of the bill that they said they would like to see removed are a food stamps block grant, and a superwaiver clause. They said the effect of a food stamps block grant will almost certainly be to take food off the tables of low-income people and put more families at risk of hunger. The superwaiver, they added, would allow state and federal officials to circumvent congressional decisions on funding for a variety of low-income programs. It has the potential for significantly harming families, they said. The letter said the law should include poverty reduction as a stated goal of TANF. Reducing the numbers of families receiving assistance is simply not enough; we must ensure that low-income working families have the chance to raise their families out of poverty, it said.

One goal of the bill should be to increase the opportunities for TANF participants to get good-paying jobs that enable them to leave poverty behind, it said. By allowing two years for educationfour years if combined with workwe can reinforce the wise choices of people who have learned that only additional education will enable them to gain long-term self-sufficiency for their families, it said.

Do Not Abuse Dominion Over Creation, Says Pope

Pope John Paul II said human beings are endowed by God with nearly divine dignity but too often abuse their stewardship over creation by damaging the environment and treating each other unjustly. Speaking to pilgrims at his weekly general audience on June 26, the pope said Christ asks his followers to exercise their royal dominion over creation in justice, freedom and selfless love. Despite humanity’s moments of grandeur, the pope said, stewardship over creation can be misunderstood and deformed by egoistic man, who is often shown to be more of a crazy tyrant than a wise and intelligent governor. History documents the evil that human freedom spreads in the world with environmental disasters and with the most clamorous social injustices, he said. In late July, the Vatican will release a compendium of the Holy See’s teaching on environmental questions.

Church Must Embrace Pluralism, Cardinal Kasper Says

The church today must embrace pluralism in the world and in its own life even as it upholds its unity and claim to universality, Cardinal Walter Kasper said on June 21 during the fourth annual Catholic Common Ground Initiative lecture in Silver Spring, Md. He called for more dialogue, consensus-building and wide participation in the life of the church and for more pastoral flexibility for local churches. Cardinal Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, traced the church’s embrace of pluralism to the Second Vatican Council, particularly its documents on religious freedom and on the church in the modern world.

News Briefs

Ten days after the U.S. bishops met in Dallas to debate and approve a national plan to protect children and stop clerical sex abuse, the conference president flew to Rome. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Msgr. William P. Fay, general secretary of the conference, were in Rome on June 25-28. Neither responded to requests for information or interviews. A spokesman at the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington said Bishop Gregory was spending some personal days away from his office and Monsignor Fay was on vacation.

A national survey found that people who financially support the religious life of churches and comparable bodies of non-Christian religions also give more to charities than do others. And people who give volunteer service to religious bodies do more volunteer work for charities, the survey found.

At least four people were injured on June 25 when Sudanese government aircraft bombed the residence of Auxiliary Bishop Akio Johnson Mutek in southern Sudan.

The Vatican registered its endorsement of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on June 26. Previous Vatican actions include endorsement of the convention on the rights of the child in 1990, the treaty against land mines and certain other conventional weapons in 1997, the convention against chemical weapons in 1999 and the treaty banning nuclear testing last year.

Pope John Paul II approved a new law banning smoking inside all Vatican buildings, including private offices, corridors and any rooms open to the public.

The U.S. bishops have endorsed a bill sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, that would require criminal background checks for gun sales at any gun show where more than 75 guns are offered for sale.

A Senate vote to permit military hospitals overseas to perform abortions is an affront to the hospitals’ tradition of saving lives, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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