Friday, November 8, 2002

(Continued)

It seems clear that something is needed to restore trust in the hierarchy in relation to clerical sexual abuse and, more importantly than appearances, to ensure that there are no past or present sexual abusers in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

The charter, the norms – what have you are intended to restore this trust and provide this assurance. But it seems to many that there are still too many potential loopholes – one of which none of us can do anything about – the lack of mutual episcopal accountability. That’s too bad, but that’s a fact. Some months ago, commenter Julia cited several canons related to grounds for examining and removing bishops. It would be fascinating, wouldn’t it, if notes reminding the faithful of the existence of those canons were inserted into the charter?

In my dreams, I know.

So anyway, in terms of the stated final goal, the norms do all we can hope for:

they assure us that a priest who has sexually abused a minor will not remain in ministry.

(A diocesan priest, that is. Religious order priests are another matter, and not under the purview of the USCCB)

When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants

That seems clear, doesn’t it?

The new norms still call for a review board, but now, as many have noted, that board exists in an advisory capacity, which means, for the most part, they will be window-dressing, because that’s what advisory boards are. Can anyone give a counter-example?

So what worries some is this: given the advisory function of review boards, and given that the new norms do not mandate reporting unless the local civil law mandates, and given that diocesan lawyers can cook up all kinds of justifications grounded in church-state/confidentiality issues to do things like withhold files, and given the fact that the bishops are not really beholden to anyone, it seems as if there is still a trust gap. There is still too much wiggle room enabling some clerical sexual abusers to roam free, especially if their victims are reluctant to go to the civil authorities – which happens.

So, what I’m working my way around to is this: all through this, I’ve maintained that there are elements of this problem that are really beyond legislation. So much of this is up to us, up to those who are not officially involved in any process or board. It’s up to priests to police each other, and to say something and, more importantly, do something, when it becomes clear that a fellow priest is doing something wrong. It’s up to lay people who witness inappropriate or questionable behavior to, once again, say something or do something.

But we also have to have a process in place that engenders trust, and since for decades – centuries? – the clerical culture has shown itself incapable of doing this, we need a process that involves outsiders in meaningful roles.

That doesn’t mean that lay people should be deciding who remains in ministry or gets laicized. That is, truth be told, a matter between bishops and priests, and, if necessary the Vatican. It doesn’t mean that lay boards will be involved in the business of trying to figure out what was sexual abuse. I don’t think bishops should be doing this either – suspected or accused abusers should be reported to the law and to child and youth welfare authorities, and they should make these decisions.

(I’m rambling, I know – I’ve been distracted this morning by a sick baby, who is now, after emptying his stomach, crashed, snoring loudly, on the couch)

But I think that it’s absolutely necessary that some part of the process, some structure exist that functions as an unobstructed window between the workings of the church administration on this matter and the laity.

In this case, the root of mistrust, aside from the actions themselves, has been dishonesty and secretiveness. Therefore, it seems as if honesty and openness are the place to begin restoring trust. So then the “power” that a lay board should be given in order to assist rebuilding this trust and a safe environment is the power to pass on information.

It’s sort of like when you’re flying, and there’s a delay. What irritates people just as much as the delay is the airline’s dishonesty and secretiveness about the reason for the delay and their actual sense of when the plane’s going to take off, rather than the lies they put on the Departure board.

Same here. Just tell us. Empower - no – mandate that part of these lay boards’ responsibilities will be to compile a yearly report on the dioceses’ actions in regard to sexual abuse allegations. This will be an independent report, compiled and written by the board and widely publicized. Names named, actions taken honestly described, monetary amounts for settlements and status reports on accused clerics provided. Every year, for all to see.

Sure, there’s still room for hiding, but you know, there always will be, and face it, the buck always stops with the bishop and probably always will, especially since this is an issue that involves priests.

But we live in an age which we call the “Information Age” and it seems to me that since knowledge and information are power – if we want power within this process to rebuild trust and ensure safety – emphasizing the free flow of information is the place to start.

A look at the complicated work of the lay board in the diocese of Springfield, MA

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