Zero Tolerance and the Power of Grace

The Oct. 18 issue of America carries two thought-provoking articles: What Has the Charter Accomplished? by Archbishop Harry Flynn, and Where Do We Go From Here? by Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. Those pose the questions, where are we and where are we headed? The we is generically the church in the United States and in particular the Catholic bishops. The articles might be called a glimpse of history in the making, a presentation of perspectives. I offer some further perspectives.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has indeed accomplished much, as Archbishop Flynn details. But I question his perspective about speed and haste. It was speedily written but hastily approved. The time for discussion was very limited in Dallas. Much of its content had not been adequately discussed in previous general meetings, particularly the handling of priest abusers and what became eventually the coverup in the reassignment of guilty priests. But more proximately we bishops did not give adequate attention to all of the three points made by Pope John Paul II in his address to the cardinals at their hastily called meeting in Rome. Two points were covered: the expelling of priest abusers from active ministry and the consciousness of the bishops’ actions having a positive influence on society in general, where sexual abuse of the young is a major blight.


But the Holy Father’s first point was not discussed in any way that would have an influence on the overall discussion. Pope John Paul stated: You are working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated. At the same time we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, the radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change.

That gets to the very heart of reconciliation of everyone. The discussion in Dallas about zero tolerance for priest offenders was not adequately discussed there. Indeed, the discussion was cut off by a motion and vote from the floor. Such a vote was in order and had to be respected. But it is my opinion that it catered to an aspect of haste which sidetracked any discussion of zero tolerance for those past offenders who over many years of priestly ministry demonstrated that they did turn away from sin and back to God and did reflect in their lives that they had gone through an extraordinary personal change, thanks to the power of the grace of God.

Frequently, lay Catholics who have lost a good priest because of abuse that happened years ago ask, Do not the bishops believe in forgiveness, conversion of soul and reconciliation?

Archbishop Flynn makes a distinction between forgiveness of sin and the consequences of sin. He is clear that every sin can be forgiven, but on consequences he simply says that expulsion from ministry and possibly the priesthood is one consequence. But it is a consequence for reformed and reclaimed priests because the bishops say so.

Therein is another consequence: priests who feel abandoned by their bishop, priests who now have no trust in their bishop, priests who feel they cannot turn to their bishop on anything personal or spiritual.

Where do we go from here? The tone of Archbishop Flynn’s article is not encouraging. He seems to discourage any amendment of the charter on zero tolerance, even the narrow consideration of the plight of reformed priest abusers. He sounds this note especially in citing the thinking of the National Review Board that for the immediate future this policy is essential for the restoration of the trust of the laity in the leadership of the Church, provided it is appropriately applied.

With all due respect for the very good contributions of the National Review Board, I fail to see zero tolerance as essential to restoring trust. What we should recognize is that zero tolerance, in being applied indiscriminately to all past offenders, has created a new group of victims, those Catholics who have lost their good pastor in their parish or their good chaplain in a nursing home. The indiscriminate application of zero tolerance will not re-establish trust in the bishops.

The Holy Father suggested that the bishops set an example for society. Perhaps the bishops can draw some inspiration from the bold move made by President Gerald Ford when dealing with the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the disastrous Vietnam debacle. He pardoned Nixon. Then he established a National Clemency Commission to deal with deserters and draft dodgers in the Vietnam War. His words are telling in his proclamation establishing the commission:

In furtherance of our national commitment to justice and mercy, these young Americans should have the chance to contribute a share to the rebuilding of peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Desertion in time of war is a major, serious offense; failure to respond to the country’s call to duty is also a serious offense. Reconciliation among our people does not require these acts to be condoned. Yet, reconciliation calls for an act of mercy to bind the nation’s wounds and to heal the scars of division.

About 15,000 young people applied for clemency. About 13,000 were granted clemency. Another 1,000 or so were granted clemency but only after a time of community service. About 900 were denied clemency.

Some political observers say these actions contributed to President Ford’s loss in the next presidential election. That might have been the price he paid for following the call of justice, mercy and reconciliation.

Without question the bishops, through the charter and the norms, have established as their primary focus the victims of sexual abuse and their protection. But the task of reconciliation is far from complete.

Where do we go from here? In my opinion we must jettison the word and the concept of zero tolerance. Rather, we must return to the Holy Father’s focus on the power of Christian conversion and the power of grace to transform lives. From that will come trust, mutual trust among all of our people. That is the mission of reconciliation which, St. Paul reminds us, is the mission entrusted to us by Jesus Christ.

(Most Rev.) Francis T. Hurley
Archbishop Emeritus
Anchorage, Alaska

Religious Identity

While I agreed with much of the recent article on Catholic universities by Richard G. Malloy, S.J. (10/11), I think he is overly optimistic on one point. Having done graduate work in history at a Jesuit university in the late 1990’s, I found that not a few of the faculty in the department had little or no interest in promoting the Christian ideals of the university. Many of these professors were hired in the 70’s and 80’s when the Catholic and Jesuit identities of this institution were downplayed. When the university recently undertook a self-study of its religious identity, a number of professors were hostile to the discussion, arguing that when they were hired they were told that the demands of the university’s mission statement were largely ceremonial. This indifference has had an effect in the classroom, when specifically Catholic and Jesuit topics (promoting justice and the importance of prayer and reflection) rarely find a place in the curriculum. For example: I was a teaching assistant for a course in the religions of Asia. When I asked the professor what he thought of Thomas Merton’s interest in Eastern spirituality, he asked me who Merton was.

If Catholic colleges and universities want to preserve and promote their religious identity, an individual’s familiarity with Catholic (or Jesuit/Mercy/Vincentian, etc.) tradition must be taken into consideration in the hiring process. The classroom is a critical if not the central place for enlivening a student’s interest and commitment to issues of faith and justice. It would be a mistake to relegate mission and spirituality to the campus ministry and Christian service offices.

Anthony D. Andreassi
New York, N.Y.

Cosmic Musing

Thanks to Michael McCauley’s The Deep Mystery of God (10/18) for leaving us with humble awe over the immensity of the universe, the impenetrability of divine intentions and the privilege granted us just to be here in our tiny cosmic neighborhood. The number of cosmic neighborhoods like our Milky Way is both astounding and disturbing. He notes that the Hubble telescope counts an astounding 10,000 galaxies in an area of sky defined by the hole in a straw eight feet away. But this raises a disturbing theological question: Is there anything in revelation and church dogma that says the Incarnate Word came only here? Or might there be someone other loving beings affirm as God from God, light from light, true God from true God?

Tad Dunne
Royal Oak, Mich.

Constantly Reminded

Many thanks to Michael McCauley for The Deep Mystery of God (10/18). We need constantly to be reminded of the extent to which our concepts shrink God. Too often we hear God spoken of as simply a being among beings, however transcendent. And into what follies that leads us: intolerance, even wars of religion. Speak of God we must, but ever with the greatest caution. I was reminded of Karl Rahner’s statement that all theology is in fact simply an attempt to build a way which loses itself in the mystery of God, where there is no way, but who nevertheless lets himself be found.

Thomas L. Sheridan, S.J.
Jersey City, N.J.

Without Rancor

I found it interesting that not one letter you printed (Letters, 10/18) in response to Congressman David Obey’s essay, My Conscience, My Vote (8/16), and Germain Grisez’s Catholic Politicians and Abortion Funding (8/30) was written by a woman.

But that small detail aside, I have to admit that while the writers by no means agree with one another, each letter was so well written, presenting differing views so skillfully and thoughtfully, that I am even more conflicted than ever about the issue of denying Communion to a public official who disagrees with us on matters of morality, such as abortion.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of these particular letters is their overall charitable tone, their lack of what the editorial, The Catholic Mind, in the same issue, decries as petty name-calling, ad hominem arguments and a gotcha’ politics of denunciation.

Talk about studying a complex problem from all angles without rancor; only a Jesuit journal could create this cerebral dilemma! ThanksI think.

Marion Ragsdale
New York, N.Y.

Efforts to Save

The short news item in your Oct. 18 issue (Signs of the Times) about Archbishop Gennaro Verolino brought me joy. I was glad to read that the Swedish Per Anger award was bestowed on him for all his efforts trying to save Jews in Hungary.

I am from Hungary. I entered our community there, the Sisters of Social Service, in 1944, the last year of World War II. As a first-year novice, I was shielded from information about our sisters’ involvement in trying to save the lives of persecuted people. After becoming a vowed member, I learned how Sister Margaret Slachta, our foundress, went to the nunciature in Budapest for baptismal certificates to take into the ghettoes. Many were saved by such documents. Sister Margaret was not alone doing this; there were several others. So did our Sister Natalie Palagyi, Sister Rosa Katalin Peitl and Sister Sara Salkahazi, who in fact was shot and thrown into the Danube for hiding Jews in the home for working women that she managed. By now they have all returned to God.

In the mid 1950’s, already in Buffalo, N.Y., I had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Verolino. He came to visit Sister Margaret, asking for sisters to work in the nunciature in Central America where he served then. Sister Margaret could not honor his request, because by that time our community had been suppressed by Communism in each of our European districts, in Hungary, in Rumania and in (then) Czechoslovakia. All of us in Buffalo (perhaps all together 10) were refugees and not equipped to be assigned.

Your brief item inspired me to respond and to thank you for the joy it brought.

Anne E. Lehner, S.S.S.
Buffalo, N.Y.

Path to Sainthood

Many thanks to George M. Anderson, S.J., for his article Mother Mary Lange: Relying on Providence (10/11). It is heartening to hear that Mother Lange’s cause for canonization is moving forward. We here in the United States could use a church heroine of such strong and faith-filled character. It is heartening to know that her community of women religious has not been deterred from its mission, and that St. Frances Academy remains viable. What a rich blessing these women have been for all of our church! Let us all pray that the racism (some of it ecclesiastical, much of it from good Catholics) that has dogged their path for 175 years does not delay Mother Lange’s elevation to sainthood.

Jane Snyder, I.H.M.
Scranton, Pa.

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13 years 9 months ago
Re: Zero Tolerance letter by Bishop Hurley (8 Nov issue)- I have been involved with nine victims of abuse, both male and female. The abuse occurred about 60 years ago. To this day, it is too difficult for some to discuss the abuse. Some of the others have been able to face what happened. One female aged 64, broke down into tears when talking about it a few months ago. They ask for nothing and would be moritified if they knew of this note.

In response to Bishop Hurley, I cannot say whether forgiveness is possible since I was not the one wronged. The perpetrator must ask each of his victims, personally, for forgiveness.

Regarding zero tolerance, there is no cure for pedophila. The bishop has an absolute and first obligation to protect the People of God from those emotionally immature clergy who would destroy their children.

11 years 6 months ago
The Nov. 8 issue contains a thought-provoking letter from Archbishop Francis Hurley. In it he discusses the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. He carefully states some of the objections that a number of people, including several bishops, have made about the charter. His concern is about the requirement that all priest abusers be dismissed from active ministry. Is “zero tolerance” too harsh an action?

I am moved by Archishop Hurley’s well-stated concerns for the priests involved. I am also concerned about the changes that he proposes. It is true that the charter was voted on rapidly, but it is a mistake to forget the context in which the deliberation occurred. Many of us laypeople were scandalized by the repeated failure of the church hierarchy to take appropriate action when this problem came to their attention. This was not only a crime of sexual abuse. It was also a failure of leadership.

The requirement that past offenders be dismissed from active ministry, even for abuse in the distant past, is a complex and difficult policy. Archbishop Hurley asks, “Do not the bishops believe in forgiveness, conversion of soul and reconciliation?” Several thoughts come to mind.

First of all, pedophilia is an illness, a compulsion. It is a mistake to assume that “conversion of soul” can change this personality defect.

Second, forgiveness does not negate the effects of a crime. If a teacher or a coach abuses, that person is fired from his or her job as well as arrested. They would never again be able to work in their former professions.

Yes, we must forgive. Nothing less is expected of us. But return them to active ministry? Do we hold priests to a different standard than the laity?

People who were abused have to live with the effects of this for the rest of their lives. Many will live extremely dysfunctional lives. Suicide is not unheard of. People who were abused can sometimes forgive the abusers and yet still be overwhelmed by their suffering. Let us not confuse forgiveness with forgetting the consequences of this crime.

Archbishop Hurley’s letter makes some very good points about priests who are accused of a single act of abuse, often in the distant past. Several bishops have publicly stated their grief over how harsh the charter is in this area. Unfortunately, the same letter does not make any reference to those who suffered. This is an unfortunate oversight.

11 years 6 months ago
The articles by Archbishop Harry Flynn and Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., (10/18), and Archbishop Francis Hurley’s letter (11/8), dealing with the “one strike and you’re out” approach to pedophile priests, clearly state many important considerations.

One not addressed is the culpability of any bishop or religious superior who, despite understanding that there is a significant degree of recidivism among pedophiles, regardless of the quality of treatment, returns a pedophile priest to active ministry.

If that reinstated priest commits another act of pedophilia, then the bishop or superior is the “proximate cause” of a grave sin and is also guilty of a grave sin. Sanctions similar to those proposed by some for “proximate cause” pro-choice politicians might be an appropriate response.

Likewise, an act of pedophilia is statutory rape in criminal law. The bishop or superior should be considered an “accomplice before the fact,” subject to civil action for that felony.

13 years 9 months ago
Re: Zero Tolerance letter by Bishop Hurley (8 Nov issue)- I have been involved with nine victims of abuse, both male and female. The abuse occurred about 60 years ago. To this day, it is too difficult for some to discuss the abuse. Some of the others have been able to face what happened. One female aged 64, broke down into tears when talking about it a few months ago. They ask for nothing and would be moritified if they knew of this note.

In response to Bishop Hurley, I cannot say whether forgiveness is possible since I was not the one wronged. The perpetrator must ask each of his victims, personally, for forgiveness.

Regarding zero tolerance, there is no cure for pedophila. The bishop has an absolute and first obligation to protect the People of God from those emotionally immature clergy who would destroy their children.


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