Damage Control in Dallas: The Bishops Meet

By Frances Kissling
Summer 2002

I was scheduled for a vacation. June 15th, my birthday, was to be spent in Ephesus, site of the ancient temple of Artemis where the philosopher Heraclitus deposited his single volume in her honor. Home also, for several years, to Paul who organized the Christian community there; and, in legend, where Mary Magdalene died. Instead, I found myself in Dallas, Texas, where the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met to respond to a crisis of their own creation-the sexual abuse of minors exacerbated by a show of arrogance and abuse of power that even the most trusting of Catholics could not swallow.

We are now in the third cycle of the crisis, each worse than the last. In the mid-1980s, the church was rocked by the revelation of serial sexual abuse by a priest. Gilbert Gauthe, of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, was convicted of molesting at least 37 boys and was serving 20 years hard labor. We were told that it was only a few priests and one inept diocese. In 1992, we were once again shocked by James Porter, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who was arrested for sexually abusing scores of boys and girls in the 1960s and early 1970s. A steady drumbeat of “isolated” cases of abuse had led up to Porter’s arrest. Church leaders followed a somewhat contradictory pattern: defend priests and institutions while claiming this is not a big problem, but establish policies and work to limit abuse. Defense, however, was still more important than prevention. Priests are more valuable than children.

Church leaders followed a somewhat contradictory pattern: defend priests and institutions while claiming this is not a big problem, but establish policies and work to limit abuse. Defense, however, was still more important than prevention. Priests are more valuable than children…. One cannot help but ask, “What does a priest need to do to be defrocked?”

The current cycle, some say, will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Not only is it now clear that the sexual abuse of children by priests and bishops is numerically significant, but more infuriatingly, bishops and cardinals have engaged in behavior that is as abusive as that of predatory priests themselves. Because court records in Boston have been “unsealed,” more is known about the behavior of Cardinal Bernard Law, but Law is certainly no exception. Bishops and cardinals have lied to parents, reassuring them that no one other than their child has been abused and that the perpetrator will be disciplined and removed from contact with children. At the same time, they have transferred these abusers from parish to parish without notifying anyone of the priests’ histories. Documents have been hidden from the courts, even destroyed. Victims have been humiliated by church lawyers. The calls for cardinals to resign, Catholics to stop funding the church and the church to transform itself could no longer be ignored.

And so to Dallas: the bishops, the survivors, the emerging, moderate “Voice of the Faithful,” the longterm lay critics (right and left), and the media. Amidst high drama and conflicting analyses of the problem and suggested solutions, the bishops passed a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” They promised that the implementation of the Charter ensures that no child will ever be abused again.

But are we now on a path where the sexual abuse of children is likely to end? I doubt it. The bishops’ deliberated while surrounded by the words of survivors. They sat in stunned silence as tough words were said by these incredible people and then voted for a charter that ignored their priorities. The survivors demanded that two elements be included in the charter: no one who ever abused a minor could be a priest and bishops and cardinals who contributed to abuse must resign. Neither item was adopted.

In an incredible display of doublespeak the bishops used the words of the pope, “There is no room in the priesthood for those who would harm the young,” in their introduction to Article 5, which stated that abusers would not be removed from the priesthood but only from their ministerial jobs. Perhaps the operative word is “would?” The mindset of the clerical club was too strong. After all, each bishop is a priest. In the mind of the abuser and the many Catholics who still defend these men and revile their accusers, Father will still be Father. One cannot help but ask, “What does a priest need to do to be defrocked?”

The second demand was also ignored. Every abused woman knows the story and it was perfectly acted out in Dallas. The bishops admitted responsibility and spoke movingly of their guilt. There were tears in their eyes as they listened to those whom they invited to speak. And like men who beat their wives, they promised it would never happen again. They fell short of showering the abused with flowers and other gifts, but they promised they would never do it again. But we know that abusers do it again. They even did it again at the meeting. Survivors had to fight every inch of the way to be heard. And, in the final moment, the bishops prayed by themselves, denying survivors and others access to their service for healing and reconciliation.

Little things. The bishops hid behind the skirts of the pope and of canon law. We have no power to do certain things, they whined. We have no power to dismiss bishops, they noted. It is true, in many ways the bishops’ conference is powerless. The power structure is feudal. Each bishop is a prince and answers only to the pope. But some signals could have been sent. For example, the conference and individual bishops could call on all bishops who contributed to abuse to resign. They could refuse to elect to office within the conference, bishops who behaved badly. They could ask the pope to remove abusive bishops who refuse to resign. But these things they will not do to their “brothers.”

With disdain for plain talk, the bishops were deliberately obscure about current canon law requirements. For example while “transparency” was the buzzword of the day, not one of them mentioned the fact that current canon law requirements actually prohibit them from acting openly. (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, April 30, 2001) The letter requires that all cases of abuse be referred to the Holy See under the “papal secret.” Clearly, bishops have been ignoring this requirement, but know full well that this pope or the next could demand that they remain silent. And the Charter and its “norms” make continual reference to the fact that the bishops must act in conformity with existing canon law, not seek changes in it.

In spite of these problems, the jury is still out on whether the bishops’ woefully inadequate response will be accepted by Catholics as good enough.

Was the bishops’ “spin” well received? Some media and Catholics seemed to buy the bishops’ claim that by not dismissing priests they could better monitor them; keep them “off the streets” by turning monasteries into ecclesial prisons. The rush by some reformers to occupy the center, to be seen as mainstream rather than revolutionary was strong. Few, it seemed, had asked themselves the question: What would Jesus do? I could not help but see the man who emptied the temple of moneylenders and who knew that anger in the face of profound injustice was not only appropriate, but called for.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Catholics for Choice