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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

A letter to the bishops

6/11/2002

DEAR BISHOPS,

As you begin your meeting in Dallas tomorrow, here are some things that we your Catholic people hope you bear in mind.

First, something about the nature of the anguish we feel. The broad reaction to the twin crisis of priestly sexual abuse and your failure to respond to it has been compared to the loss of investor confidence that has followed revelations of financial impropriety by CEOs and their accountants. But, in fact, the problem Catholics have is far graver than any measured by a falling stock market precisely because our confidence is shattered not only in you and in the system of which we are all a part, but in our selves.

The Catholic Church, presided over by its priests, has given us a firm sense of our place in the universe. The ministries of the church - from birth to death - have assured us that the universe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is animated by a benign spirit, by love. This faith has enabled us to trust life, when so much around us invites skepticism. Don't you see that the betrayals by some of our priests, and especially your failure to treat them as betrayals, has left us shaken at this deep level? The question is not merely, Can we trust Father? Or you? Or even the church? After a lifetime of accepting Catholic assertions that now seem heartbreakingly naive, or even criminally self-serving, the question has become, Can we any longer trust ourselves? Can we trust life itself? Which, of course, is a Catholic's way of asking, Can we trust God?

Because so much is at stake for us in this crisis, it is urgent that you regard us, the Catholic people, as the main judge of what you do this week. We know that you will conduct your deliberations with one eye fixed on Rome, but the Vatican assessments must take second place to the people's, and we think you know that.

After all, we have been filling the parish halls in emergency meetings in your diocese. You have been the targets of grass roots pressure from the most devoted members of your communities. You have received nothing less than mandates not only from us, but from your good priests and your own theologians - one mandate for narrowly focused reforms in the way abuse is handled and another for broader consideration of the underlying issues. The only way this tragedy can get worse is if your response, while pleasing myopic functionaries in Rome, further alienates you from the people to whom you will return after Dallas.

And speaking of myopic, the view heard increasingly from Rome, that this crisis is a creation of a sensation-driven American media, could not be further from the truth, and even if you thought so earlier this year, you know better now. Indeed, the communication that is going on so powerfully within the American Catholic Church, between you and us, is entirely a function of the secular media, its reports on your deliberations, and on our reactions.

We meet each other less in church than at the breakfast table and the evening news. Beginning with The Boston Globe's revelations in January, which you, too, now understand as salutary, newspaper coverage of this crisis has been what must be called a grace.

It is newspapers that forced the evil of abuse out in the open and that ended the Catholic self-deception that allowed it. Nothing demonstrates the genius of a free press, or its value, more dramatically than this story, and the changes in church procedure and structure that now must follow from it. Something sacred, in other words, has been at work in the newsrooms and editorial offices of America.

There is a historical precedent for what you are faced with. Once, the British House of Lords was the most powerful governing institution in England, but when its members insisted more on their own prerogatives than on serving the people, real power passed to a new institution of the grassroots - the House of Commons, which today dominates Parliament.

You can follow the example of the Lords and be left with the trappings of status, your titles, and costumes, but in the present crisis authentic power is shifting to the common people who have been filling your parish halls. Our hope is that your authority will now honor ours, so that we can be collaborators in the creation of a renewed Catholic Church that serves once more not only as a universal source of trust but, more simply, as a safe place for children.

For all of this, our eyes are turned to Dallas. Our prayers are with you - together with our expectation that you will take seriously our firm demand for change. Nothing less than our faith is at stake.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 6/11/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.


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