Humility and responsibility:
by Raymond A. Schroth
Bishops can't exempt themselves from tough line applied to priests
Sunday, June 23, 2002
One consensus that emerged from the recent meeting of the American Catholic hierarchy in Dallas to confront the church's crisis - priests' sexual abuse of children and the bishops' cover-up - is that grassroots Catholics had come to despise their bishops.
This impression had been building for some time, but it took this scandal to bring it to a head. Though devoted to their parish priests, whom they have defended when accusations of impropriety did not match the image of the priests they knew, parishioners were nevertheless quick to view their bishops as aloof, arrogant bureaucrats who dealt with protesting parents by first brushing them off, then buying their silence, then slipping the offending priests several times into other nests of potential victims.
As Australian novelist Thomas Keneally wrote in the New Yorker (June 17 and 24), his own crisis of doubt came to him in the seminary, right before ordination, ``from the realization that, behind the compelling mystery of Catholicism . . . lay a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.''
So the Dallas meeting was a challenge to prove to the public - both Catholics and media - that the church has heard the protests and can clean house.
On one level, the bishops succeeded in projecting their image, spelled out in Bishop Wilton Gregory's keynote address, as contrite, having at last listened to the faithful, determined to set the ship back on course.
Confronted by Tim Russert on ``Meet the Press,'' Gregory demonstrated the talents that will make him a cardinal. The bishops had listened, at last, to the victims who testified at their meeting, they had read the polls and proclaimed a policy of ``zero tolerance.''Any priest who had abused a young person - even once, no matter how long ago, no matter what the circumstances, even if he had gone into treatment, repented and served his people blamelessly for 30 years, even if his victim already had been apologized to and compensated, even if he and his victim had been reconciled - would be drummed out of the service, like those disgraced cavalry officers in westerns who have their epaulets torn off and swords broken and are cast alone into the desert.Stripped of his Roman collar, clerical suit and the title ``father,'' if he declined to quit the priesthood, he could bury himself in a monastery or some back room, where he could do chores but not ``serve'' the public sacramentally - not even in prisons, hospitals, asylums, leper colonies, the most desperate priestless missionary outposts.
No matter that for a priest of that generation, not to ``serve'' is not to be. Since 1986, 16 accused priests, including 12 in the United States, have killed themselves rather than accept this humiliation. With this policy, more will follow.
Of course repeat offenders, particularly those compulsively drawn to children, must be removed from circulation. But that's not the new policy.
There is something ruthless and un-Christian about this kind of ``zero tolerance.'' As if the bishops - never noted for their courage or imagination - had never read any great Catholic literature. It's as if they had never picked up the novels of Sigrid Undset, Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Edwin O'Connor - where God's grace is delivered in the most fragile vessels.
As if they had skimmed but not contemplated the Gospel's stories not just of forgiveness but of regeneration and reconciliation. Jesus did not send cured lepers and demoniacs back into their caves but into the community to proclaim the good news.
At no time on ``Meet the Press'' did Gregory stick up for the rights of priests who might be falsely accused.
Asked how the bishops would be held accountable, he fudged. They are learning to be accountable to one another, he said. The rest was up to the pope.
Basically, in Dallas, the bishops acted according to their nature. As the Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of ``The Changing Face of the Priesthood,'' observed on the same program, the reputation of the church, maintaining the status quo, is still the bishops' priority.
They had circled the wagons.
The leaders whom the public held most responsible for the cover-up had ``apologized'' but will cling to their power.
Here's a suggestion for them.
They should think and pray about this for a month and then ask themselves how they can take responsibility for the havoc they have wrought.
Then invite the public to a liturgy, a penance service in Yankee Stadium. There the bishops would put aside their embroidered vestments and pointed hats and melt down their crosiers and replace them with wooden sticks and burn documents in which they are called ``your eminence.''Wearing the rags of the poor, they should smear ashes on their faces as symbols of their sorrow and, carrying the totems of their privileged status, like rings and pink robes, in procession, place them on the altar with their signed resignations.
The Vatican might accept only a symbolic percentage of their exit papers, but their exit would be an act of integrity and courage - which is what we expect of God's representatives - and it would enable a new beginning for the American church.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., Jesuit community professor at Saint Peter's College, is author of the recently published ``Fordham: A History and Memoir'' (Loyola Press). He originally wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark.