Signs of the Times

U.S. Bishops Discuss Church Problems, Two Major Texts

The U.S. Catholic bishops discussed serious problems facing the U.S. church and voted on new directories for catechetics and deacon formation at their June 19-21 spring meeting in St. Louis. Three of their five half-day sessions were closed to the media, but reporters were briefed on the general nature and content of those sessions.

The first afternoon they held a closed meeting with researchers and lay leaders appointed to oversee their ongoing efforts to combat sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. The researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York answered questions about the aims and methodology of the current study they are conducting in all U.S. dioceses to determine the nature and scope of such abuse over the past half-century. The study will report aggregate figures on the number of abusive priests, the number of victims and the amounts of money paid out by the church.


The bishops spent the whole day behind closed doors on June 20 in structured discussions to reflect on what they regard as three of the highest-priority issues in the U.S. church: the identity and spirituality of bishops and priests, the decline in sacramental practice and lack of adequate faith formation among U.S. Catholics, and challenges facing the Catholic laity in today’s culture. The day of reflection was the first major step in an 18-month process initiated last November to determine whether the bishops should convene the first plenary council of the Catholic Church in the United States since 1884 and, if they do, what themes and issues it should address.

Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who led the session on the Catholic laity, told a small group of reporters afterward that the bishops said that before deciding on whether to convene a plenary council, they needed more information on the nature and history of church councils and on possible alternative ways, such as a national synod, to deal with the problems they want to address.

At noontime and during afternoon press conferences on June 19, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stressed that the bishops have done a great deal over the past 18 months to address the sexual abuse crisis and that they are still engaged in that process.

In a report to the bishops on June 21, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the U.S.C.C.B.’s Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, said the bishops’ work since last June to combat sexual abuse of minors by clergy has been going at full throttle. There is still a long road ahead of us, he said, but our commitment has not wavered. We have made a pledge to our people and to the people of this nation and especially the vulnerable ones, and we will keep that pledge.

In an address to the bishops at their public opening session, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, papal nuncio to the United States, urged the bishops to respond with faith, hope and charity to the real problems confronting the U.S. church. While recognizing that the problems are real, he also warned that they have been magnified to discredit the moral authority of the church.

In open sessions the bishops discussed and voted on two major documents. The 357-page National Directory for Catechesisintended to replace Sharing the Light of Faith (1979)takes into account many intervening developments, including the issuance of a new general directory on catechesis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church by the Holy See.

They also discussed and voted on a 217-page National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States. Originally approved in 2000, the directives did not receive the required Vatican confirmation and have been revised to take into account more than 200 Vatican observations on the earlier text.

Both directories failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote because a number of bishops had left the meeting early. Since no objections to either directory were raised from the floor of the meeting, the passage of both documents seemed virtually certain, once the absent members are polled.

In a quick series of votes on June 19 the bishops decided to undertake the development of four new documents within the next few years. These are:

A pastoral letter on the theology of mission, intended to promote mission awareness as an integral part of religious education in U.S. Catholic schools and parishes.

A statement applying Catholic social teaching to agricultural issues in the face of emerging challenges of biotechnology, global trade and the increasing concentration of agriculture in the hands of large corporations.

A statement offering practical ways of improving collaboration between women and clergy in the church.

A foundational document on the formation and preparation of ecclesial lay ministers, setting out the goals and criteria for the personal, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral formation of lay people who seek to engage in lay ministries in the name of the church.

At the request of Cardinal George, U.S. representative on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the bishops granted approval for him to vote in favor of sending revised ICEL statutes to the Holy See for approval when the episcopal board of ICEL holds its next meeting. The statutes, revised at the insistence of the Vatican, reorganize the commission, which translates the Vatican’s Latin liturgical texts into English for possible use by English-speaking countries around the world.

A new study of the state of Catholic Native Americans was released on June 19, and Bishop Donald E. Pelotte of Gallup, N.M., one of two Native American bishops in the country, reported to the bishops on some of its main findings. He said the study highlighted the need for more dioceses to be aware of and attentive to the sometimes unnoticed Native American Catholic populations in their midst.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., gave the bishops a brief progress report on the New Covenant initiative promoting greater collaboration among Catholic parishes, schools, health care institutions and social service agencies to make Catholic healing and caring ministries more effective. He announced that the eight-year-old movement has issued a new study on such collaboration, available on compact disc. He also stressed the role of the local bishop, as coordinator of ministries, in leading the way for such collaboration.

During the closed session on Friday, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh led off the discussion of sacramental practice and catechesis. Cardinal George took up the discussion of the role of the laity in today’s culture. Archbishop Justin F. Rigali of St. Louis introduced the segment on priestly and episcopal identity and spirituality.

Bishop Wuerl and Cardinal George highlighted challenges to Catholic belief and practice posed by a secularized, individualistic culture in the United States. Archbishop Rigali said the identity of a priest or bishop is intimately bound up in his spirituality, which must be based on the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Keating Resigns From Bishops’ National Review Board

Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, resigned on June 16 as chairman of the National Review Board formed by the U.S. bishops last year to monitor their performance in combating sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The move followed a heated controversy with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles over Keating’s characterization of some bishops as being as secretive as a crime family. But in his resignation letter Keating said he had been talking for the past two months about resigning this June, after one full year in the job.

In the letter, however, Keating defended his recent remarks. My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate, he said. I make no apology. To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away: that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church.

The 13-member National Review Board is charged with monitoring the U.S. bishops’ compliance with the child protection charter, conducting annual audits in every diocese, and providing yearly reports on the results to the U.S.C.C.B. president, who is to publish those reports.

The charter also gave the board responsibility for two major research projectsone on the extent of the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. church and another on the causes and context of the crisis.

In his resignation letter Keating said the board, with Bishop Gregory’s support, has accomplished much.

We have begun the causes and context, scope and audit processes, he said. The audit is the most significant. Never again will any bishop be able to hide and avoid the scandal of sex abuse in his diocese. As a former F.B.I. agent and U.S. attorney, I am convinced that pouring law enforcement and audit resources annually into each diocese will reclaim Catholic lay confidence. All of us can be assured of zero tolerance, transparency and criminal referral because outsiders will make sure that is the case.

Our message was clear, he added. Sex abuse is not just a moral lapse. It is a crime that should be fully prosecuted.

Just days before he resigned, Keating said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times that some unnamed bishops have been acting like the Cosa Nostra, the secretive U.S. branch of the Mafia, in their efforts to hide and suppress information about clergy sexual abuse. He also criticized some bishops, citing Cardinal Mahony by name, for what he characterized as resistance to a national survey on the extent of the problem being conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Cardinal Mahony called Keating’s comparison of bishops to La Cosa Nostra off the wall. He strongly defended the position he and the other California bishops had taken on the John Jay study, calling for changes in the researchers’ survey protocols to permit the bishops to respond to the questions without violating California’s confidentiality laws.

The day before the Keating interview was reported in The Times, the researchers made changes in their survey protocols that satisfied the California bishops, and Cardinal Mahony and the other bishops of the state said they could now participate in the study without breaking the law.

At a press conference during the bishops’ meeting in St. Louis, Robert Bennett, a member of the National Review Board, praised Keating but distanced himself and the board from Keating’s remarks comparing some unnamed bishops with the Mafia. The National Review Board does not believe there is a criminal organization afoot in the bishops’ conference, he said.

Obviously, we wouldn’t be here if bishops had not made mistakes in varying degrees.... But to suggest that this is a criminal organization is beyond the pale, he added. It was an inappropriate remark by Mr. Keating and the board does not associate with it.

Archbishop Sheehan Stresses Healing, Reconciliation

Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., said on June 20 that healing and reconciliation will be among his first priorities as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Phoenix, Ariz. I want to be an instrument of hope, he told reporters at a press conference in St. Louis, where the U.S. bishops were holding their annual spring meeting on June 19-21. Pope John Paul II named Archbishop Sheehan as interim head of the Phoenix Diocese on June 18, when he accepted the sudden resignation of Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien. Bishop O’Brien faces felony charges for leaving the scene of an accident on June 14, in which a pedestrian struck by his car died. He was arrested on June 16 and formally charged on June 17.

His arrest and the felony charge came two weeks after Bishop O’Brien and Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley announced an agreement by which the bishop would avoid criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice over the way he handled cases of sexual abuse by priests. The agreement required Bishop O’Brien to delegate a moderator of the curia to take over certain administrative duties, including revising and enforcing policies on sexual abuse.

When asked how he would deal with the sexual abuse issue and victims in the Phoenix Diocese, Archbishop Sheehan cited his experience 10 years ago when he, then the bishop of Lubbock, Tex., was asked to administer the Archdiocese of Santa Fe following the then-archbishop’s sudden resignation in the midst of a major clergy sexual abuse scandal there.

I felt I needed to be like a priest and to talk to people and to assure them of the apology of the church for what’s happened to them, he said, and I felt it was better to make a mistake by being too conciliatory than by listening too much to the attorneys’ point of view. So I just launched right in, and if someone said they were a victim, and I found out, I just called them or got in touch with them. I had no negative impact, financially or anything else, by doing that, by just being a pastor, he said.

News Briefs

Two special archeological committees set up by the Israel Antiquities Authority said the inscription on an ancient limestone ossuary said to be the burial box of the brother of Jesus was a fake. The ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan, is currently under investigation by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Israeli police.

According to statistics released by the Vatican, there were 1,797 Catholics for every priest in 1978 and 2,619 Catholics per priest in 2000. The number of Catholics in the world has risen from 757 million to 1.06 billionan increase of 40.2 percent. The overall world population increased 45.8 percent during the same 22-year period.

The Vatican’s eight-year-old Web site ( now averages about 60 million hits a month from Web surfers in 150 countries. It contains 65,000 church documents and more than 200,000 pages. Recent additions are virtual tours of the Vatican museums and a page for making credit card donations to Peter’s Pence.

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