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Scandalizing the Faithful?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 10, 2008

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has reported that most dioceses are in compliance with the policies the Conference developed at its famous meeting in Dallas in 2002 to deal with the sex abuse crisis. Notably absent from the statistics are the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska and four Eastern Catholic eparchies, all of which have consistently refused to provide any audit information whatsoever to the National Review Board the bishops established to monitor their new policies. In a recent letter to the USCCB, the chairman of the National Review Board, Michael Merz, claims this resistance “scandalizes the faithful.”

Somehow I doubt it. The most knowledgeable and dedicated of the faithful—those who have been fighting in the trenches for the past forty years to eliminate the root causes of the whole problem—are not foolish enough to think that the “Dallas Charter” properly addresses these causes. Indeed, most of these lay persons would probably applaud Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln and the heads of the Eastern Catholic eparchies for steering clear of the USCCB’s “save the children” juggernaut (a manifestation, if ever there was one, of the inmates running the asylum).

I am not personally familiar with the Eastern Catholic bishops, though it is widely observed that the Eastern Churches in general have tended to be less influenced by the secularizing trends (including the accompanying licentious sexual patterns) which have so heavily assaulted the people, priests and bishops of the Latin Rite. For his part, Bishop Bruskewitz is well-known as a strong shepherd very prone to handle matters of ecclesiastical discipline directly by virtue of his office, rather than through committees, professional advisors, legal counsel, special programs and press releases. It seems probable that all five bishops share the opinion of many lay people that, whatever the merits of the Dallas approach—and there are some—it is fundamentally flawed in the same way that most diocesan policies and programs of the past fifty years have been flawed.

Consider the three most obvious and significant flaws in the Dallas program. The first is that the bishops have put all the blame on their priests, whom they have largely abandoned as guilty until proven innocent. One bishop, eager to avoid legal entanglement with his priests, has even referred to them as “independent contractors”. The second is that many bishops have placed the responsibility for future improvement on the shoulders of children, through “safe touch” programs. Concerned parents regard such programs as sexually abusive in themselves because of the kind of information they insist on imparting. The third is that the bishops have placed the responsibility for ensuring an appropriate institutional response on a lay review board, which by its very nature can do little more than count statistics in yet another vast, over-rated and bureaucratic compliance program. All this without the bishops admitting their own widespread wrongdoing, or calling each other to account.

I do not mean to suggest that every bishop except Fabian Bruskewitz has failed in his duty. It is certainly morally possible to comply with the audit, and I can name some outstanding bishops who have done so. But one must question whether this can possibly pass the time and energy test. My own opinion is that the Dallas process is mostly irrelevant. Sound, experienced lay people (ordinary people who have all too much experience with bureaucratic red tape, mandated training programs, legalese, bean-counting, team-building techniques, and paper-based business management) almost instinctively understand that the key to success is not particular policies, programs and audits, but bishops who take direct responsibility for their dioceses in the service of a robust and authentic Catholic Faith.

In fact, the smart money bets that needed reforms will be made faster in non-compliant areas than almost anywhere else. In any case, whenever a bishop is replaced by a press agent, an attorney, a committee, a bureaucracy, a program, an audit, or even something as typical as a clerical club, personal responsibility suffers. No, intelligent lay people are seldom scandalized by non-compliance in anything. What scandalizes is leaders who don’t—personally—do their jobs.

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