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Even post-Dallas, US bishops' abuse policy is no model for emulation

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 08, 2010

As recently as 2002, the Catholic bishops of the US were reviled in the mass media for their abysmal response to the sex-abuse crisis. But in the past few months the mass media have set their sights on the Vatican, advancing the argument that Rome bears primary responsibility for the scandal. Quite often analysts claim that the American bishops have taken the lead in preventing abuse, while the Vatican has lagged behind.

Is that claim accurate? Since adopting their “Dallas Charter,” have the American bishops been diligent in protecting children from abuse? For a variety of reasons (some of which I shall explore below), most reporters seem to have taken that claim for granted. Now a perceptive story by AP religion reporter Rachel Zoll offers a closer look at that claim.

How carefully have the US bishops monitored priests who have molested children? Not carefully at all, Zoll discovers.

Hundreds of American priests have been suspended from ministry under the terms of the Dallas Charter, and scores have been laicized. But when they are removed from ministry—temporarily or permanently—these priests are not confined to their quarters. Except in rare cases they are not subject to criminal prosecution, nor are they legally obligated to register as sex offenders. They are free to go out into the world, find jobs, rent apartments, and begin new lives. If they preyed on children in the past, they may prey on children in the future.

The scandal developed because bishops regularly chose not to use their disciplinary authority to control predatory priests. After Dallas, the bishops might have made partial amends by using that authority wisely, and keeping tight reins on the priests who were attracted toward children. Instead most American bishops have now chosen to rid themselves of the problem by renouncing any authority over the abusive priests.

Laicization frees the Church from liability, but it does not free the children from danger. Quite the contrary. While they were functioning as priests, these men were subject to the control of their diocesan bishops. The AP story includes an uncharacteristically sensible statement from one of the most influential architects of the US bishops’ policies:

"Once you throw them out," said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, former director of the Saint Luke Institute, a Catholic mental health center in Maryland, "you have no leverage."

The Dallas Charter gave bishops two options for dealing with priests who were guilty of sexual abuse: they could seek to remove the priests from the clerical state—petitioning the Vatican to laicize (or, as the secular media persistently say, “defrock”) them—or they could place the priests under careful supervision, to monitor their actions and prevent unsupervised contact with young people. But Rachel Zoll finds that few dioceses have any supervisory program in place. Dioceses routinely seek to laicize the abusive priests rather than supervise them.

And if the priests are laicized, what happens next? Nobody knows.

No one knows exactly how many accused clergy have been removed from the priesthood in the last several years, how many are living under church supervision or the specifics of how dioceses are tracking the men under their watch. Annual child safety audits for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops do not include a check of priest-monitoring programs.

In the post-Dallas era, American Catholic pastors run criminal-background checks on their janitors, ushers, and parish volunteers. Mothers may be fingerprinted before they are allowed to supervise recess at their children’s school. The children themselves are subjected to classroom programs on sexuality and abuse. Yet there is no effort to keep accounts of the abusive priests who created this problem in the first place!

We don’t know how many abusive priests have been loosed onto society at large. We don’t know where they are living and working today. We don’t know whether they have regular contact with young people. The American bishops, who failed to prevent these men from abusing children in the 1960s and 1970s, are not even attempting to track their activities today.

Why, then, have so many recent media accounts touted the US bishops’ policies as models that other episcopal conferences should follow? I have no easy answer, but I can offer two hypotheses:

  • American reporters receive most of their background information, and most of their story leads, from American bishops and their subordinates. Still smarting from the public humiliation they have suffered during much of this decade, some bishops (and their subordinates) are anxious to offer some retrospective justification for their handling of the issue. So the argument has emerged that the American hierarchy might have handled the problem effectively, if not for the resistance of the Vatican. That argument has some measure of plausibility, since there were powerful Vatican officials who resisted investigation of sex-abuse claims. But there is no evidence—none whatsoever—that American bishops were pushing to expose the corruption.
  • The bungling of the American bishops has already been exhaustively documented; it is no longer big news. Reporters looking for an exciting story are hunting for bigger game now. Pinning responsibility on the Vatican is a far more exciting prospect. Moreover, many American reporters (and the editors who give them their orders) have an abiding animus against the Vatican. If the object of the story is to depict the Vatican as the villain, it serves that editorial purpose to promote the American bishops as the thwarted would-be heroes.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jul. 11, 2010 9:48 AM ET USA

    Sir - re "pinning responsibility on the Vatican is a far more exciting prospect". For "Vatican" read "Pope Benedict". A minor point, but the Pope's vision for the Church (and the common good of society) is vehemently opposed in secular and (some) Church quarters, and his calumniators feel the urgency of stopping him.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 09, 2010 10:34 AM ET USA

    "We don’t know how many abusive priests have been loosed onto society at large. We don’t know where they are living and working today." This may offend charity, but in the interest of speculation that may someday lead to truth....Perhaps these former "priests," whose interest lie not with "children" but with younger sexually-mature males, simply join a community where their conduct is no longer unacceptable and/or without the "cover" of a collar they are simply forced to move on to older men?

  • Posted by: opraem - Jul. 09, 2010 6:55 AM ET USA

    phil, it is the sexual abuse and its cover-up scandal. there were/are two crimes committed and the dallas guidelines only address one of them. until the ranks of the us bishops are thinned of the enablers, the crisis will not go away. and the media will still view the church as fair game.