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Spotlight Report

Scholars say prayer not enough in scandal

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/9/2002

NEW ORLEANS - Mary Carter Waren believes in the power of prayer.

An instructor of sacramental theology at St. Thomas University in Miami, she believes in forgiveness, conversion, and reconciliation. But when she listens to the religious language used to explain what went wrong in the Catholic Church over the last several decades, and how the church can recover, she gets apprehensive.

''If prayer doesn't make a difference, we need to shut up the shop,'' she said. ''But we can't just say I'm sorry, so let's put this behind us. That's a form of cheap grace.''

As Catholic bishops gather in Dallas this week to come up with a binding policy on clergy sexual abuse, they and other church leaders are counting on God to play some role in resolving the crisis, and they are calling on Catholics around the country to employ spiritual resources such as prayer to help the church. But after decades in which the Catholic Church frequently described the crisis in theological terms - sexual abuse is a sin, abusers should be converted to a deeper life of faith, victims and the church should experience reconciliation - many bishops and others are saying one lesson they have learned is that spirituality is not enough.

''Nothing seriously transforming in the church can happen without deep prayer and a deep relationship with God, but having said that, I also say that prayer alone will not solve anything,'' said the Rev. Peter C. Phan, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which is gathered in New Orleans for its annual convention. ''In the past, we often said, `You have a problem with sex, go and pray and pray, and hopefully it goes away.' We [now] know that's not the case. Even though we know that prayer is essential, it's not enough.''

In the past, church leaders relied on religious solutions to many aspects of the problem. F. Ray Mouton Jr., an attorney who represented an abusive priest in Louisiana two decades ago, said in an interview yesterday that the church's initial advice to victims, as well as to perpetrators, was to go to confession.

''In the past it was seen as simply sin that had to be confessed and helped with prayer,'' Phan said. ''Today we know it's more than that. It's also crime, and it needs to be reported, and it's perhaps rooted in a personality disorder, so they have to have counselling.''

Many bishops have acknowledged that in the past the church relied too heavily on viewing sexual abuse through the prism of morality, which led them to ignore other psychological and criminal implications of child abuse.

''There was a time many years ago when instances of sexual abuse of children were viewed almost exclusively as moral failures,'' Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston said in an April letter to priests. ''A spiritual and ascetical remedy, therefore, was deemed sufficient. While the moral aspect of such cases is always present, these cases cannot be reduced only to a moral component.''

Even today, many church leaders fall back on spiritual solutions, particularly when asked what the church should do about bishops who failed to remove abusive priests from the ministry. For example, Cardinal James Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, suggested in April holding bishops accountable through the use of the church's ''unique resources,'' which he said included ''days of prayer, pilgrimages, retreats.''

Law, criticized for his own conduct, assigned himself a novena, nine days of special prayer leading up to Pentecost.

The bishops are calling for Catholics around the country to pray for them throughout the days of their conference, and they are preparing to call for a national day of prayer, fasting, and abstinence on Sept. 14 ''for the healing and reconciliation of the church.'' The bishops will ask for services for victims and people who are alienated from the church, and the proposal, responding to the concern of some laypeople about the behavior of church leaders, declares that, ''in a special way bishops and priests are asked to undertake this penitential practice.''

Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group based in Wellesley, has called for its own worldwide day of prayer and fasting on June 28. And Call to Action, a progressive national Catholic group, is hosting a number of prayer vigils this week to show faith during this crisis.

But bishops are acknowledging that a church cannot rely on faith to the exclusion of other responses to the crisis.

Bishop William S. Skylstad, vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church may have tried too hard to appear compassionate toward perpetrators and now needs to seek reconciliation with victims of abuse.

''As we look to the future, a part of our prayer should be requesting forgiveness, extending a hand of reconciliation,'' he said. ''It's appropriate now to correct whatever mistakes we've made in the past. Our Christian journey is a journey of conversion, and that involves prayerfulness and openness to the spirt. We need to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, ask for forgiveness, and move on to the future with a sense of hopefulness, bearing in mind that we have a tremendous responsibility for the protection of children.''

And Bishop George H. Niederaurer of Salt Lake City said that before church officials can express penance, ''there must be some kind of attempt to repair the damage done by one's sins.'' Niederauer contended that ''there has to be a context'' for prayers of confession, saying ''We're a church, we're a body of Christ, and we're supposed to be one with the Lord ... but it will be much more healing and much more effective for everybody, especially victims and their families, if we have acted to protect children and to say we're sorry.''

Chester Gillis, the chairman of the department of theology at Georgetown University, sees a clear evolution in the thinking of top church officials.

''Now they're seeing a distinction between redemption and rehabilitation - there's redemption from God, but there may not be rehabilitation psychologically,'' Gillis said. ''God loves all sinners, but theology and psychology aren't always a good marriage, and theology and legality aren't a good marriage. I wouldn't want to see the church eschew its character, but at the same time there are practical issues that need to be addressed.''

Some would like the church to use more religious language, but to mean it.

''Part of the problem has been the overuse of legal and corporate and bureaucratic language, and there hasn't been enough casting this in evangelical language, not as a mask, but let's confess and let's repent and let's atone,'' said the Rev. Donald P. Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union, a seminary in Chicago. ''That's what people are looking for. They don't want to hear `If mistakes were made' language - that makes people's blood boil.''

Senior argues that ''the Gospel values are very important to clarify the way ahead,'' but that forgiveness cannot come at the expense of child protection.

Waren, the Miami theologian, declared last week that central Catholic concepts are being cheapened in the current discussion.

''I'm very concerned that we claim back the words `forgiveness' and `conversion,' because I think they're being co-opted in a way so that we're going to have a very difficult time ever reclaiming those concepts again - it's going to take us years to regain the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation and conversion,'' she said.

''I have teenage sons who will never understand conversion and forgiveness the same way ... because the bishops are claiming forgiveness and conversion in a way that doesn't mean to turn around. It means to dance the right dance.''

Waren said bishops and abusers cannot be forgiven, or claim to be converted, without serious changes in their behavior.

''You've got to do something to make it better; you can't just say you're sorry and keep doing what you've been doing,'' she said. ''You can't cry, `Lord, Lord,' and not do the hard work. Forgiveness is about saying you're sorry and making amends, and conversion is about a process; it's not instantaneous. I haven't seen that yet.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/9/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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