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Spotlight Report

  David O'Brien  

To reform the church, laity must take action

11/20/2002

CARDINAL LAW may be back in public, but the Catholic Church crisis isn't over. During the last two weeks in Rome and Washington, the hierarchy tried to get back to normal, but normal, we now know, is a long way from the Kingdom of God. What we also know now, with stunning clarity, is that only lay initiative will reform the American church, for the bishops, and most of the priests, are not interested.

At Dallas in June the bishops acknowledged their failure to deal with the problem of sexual abuse of children by priests. They adopted a zero tolerance policy for abusers and promised to turn offenders over to civil authorities. They established lay-dominated committees in each diocese and an unprecedented national review board to ensure that they enforced their new policies.

Predictably, the Vatican moved to regain control by insisting that all local decision-making power must be in the hands of the bishop, overseen by Rome. In Washington last week the bishops agreed. All credible allegations of abuse will now be referred to the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, which will decide where and how each case will be adjudicated.

Canon law will shape that process, and canonical procedures are secret and controlled by the hierarchy. The local bishop can remove priests from their posts. He may seek the help of an advisory board in his initial assessment of the credibility of a charge, but once that decision is made the case internally passes into the hands of the bishop and clerical courts. And, despite the outrage of the last nine months, the US church made these critical decisions without the participation of victims, victim families, lay people, or even the priests, religious, and lay professionals who do the day-to-day work of the church.

In reaffirming the controlling role of canon law, Rome has the support of diocesan priests. Hardly heard from before Dallas, they were stirred to life by the new policies and lobbied for Roman intervention to ensure protection for their due process rights. So Vatican pressure is now reinforced by the bishops' own priests.

The only countervailing pressure comes from Governor Keating's National Review Board, which is supposed to ensure that the bishops carry through on their June promises. That body has genuine power in its independence and its access to the bishops and public. Victims and their families, all but ignored in church politics since Dallas, hope Keating will force church leaders to face the truth.

Inside the church, however, support for the board is limited. No counterpart body has been established in any diocese, where all the new committees are focused on pastoral care, initial case assessment, and longterm prevention. Moreover, they are entirely dependent on the bishop, a dependence that the Vatican has taken pains to underline.

What will the bishops do now? Will they allow the mixed lay and clerical committees established in each diocese to call their own meetings, set their own agenda, and have access to priests files? Will they be informed of referrals of cases to the Vatican and the subsequent canonical process? Most important, will they be able to make a public report to Keating's panel? And will that panel carry out its promised study of the reasons for this scandal? In short, will we know the full truth or won't we?

The bigger question is, what will lay Catholics do now? Restoring trust begins with trusting people, but Rome clearly does not trust Catholics, including bishops. Those priests who appealed for Vatican intervention don't seem to trust their fellow Catholics either. Do lay people trust one an other?

They have the capacity, if they choose, to strengthen the voice of the victims, to encourage their passive pastoral staffs to take responsibility for the church they serve, and to ensure that whatever process the bishops choose there will be accountability.

To do that they have to organize. Active participation and financial support for independent organizations like the Voice of the Faithful is mandatory. If not, the bishops, under an increasingly intrusive Vatican bureaucracy, will make the decisions. The Holy Spirit will ensure that the church survives, but not necessarily with integrity.

If Catholics are to have a church once again that lifts their spirits and graces the world around them, they will have to translate their faith into action by reforming their church. Only they can make that happen.

David O'Brien is director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 11/20/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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