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A decade later, have Catholic bishops seen the light on sex abuse?

June 8, 2012

Another post from the world’s worst blogger. This one about the faith column in today’s Wall Street Journal. Religion writer David Gibson takes on American bishops 10 years after their historic Dallas meeting, acknowledging the “critical steps” taken with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, but pointing out how bishops protected themselves.

But throughout it all, the bishops exempted themselves from accountability—even though records showed that feckless inaction by many bishops, or even deliberate malfeasance by some, had allowed abusers to claim so many victims.

The best answer the bishops had to this in Dallas was a behind-the-scenes “fraternal correction” policy, by which a bishop would quietly pass along any concerns about another bishop to that bishop. Church tradition was invoked to preclude any external oversight by laypeople or other prelates. As always, each bishop would answer only to the pope, who alone had the authority to remove the head of a diocese.

Now, as the bishops gather next week in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting, they will hear an update on the Dallas charter but are unlikely to address this enormous loophole—despite events that make it all the more urgent.

It’s an excellent and timely column. And it stirred up some memories from my early days on the religion beat. I cannot believe it’s been a decade since the bishops crafted their charter — and that I was there covering it for the Austin American-Statesman. I was brand new on the beat and had a lot to learn about how the church operated as an institution (even though I was raised Catholic, I didn’t really understand the inner workings of the hierarchy). More importantly, I had much to learn about the impact of sexual abuse. The victims who showed up in droves to the Dallas meeting seemed so angry and demanding. Just raw emotion that, in all honesty, rather frightened me. I couldn’t relate to them.

I still can’t fully appreciate how damaging it is to be abused in this way, especially by a person who represents God. But after interviews with many victims over the years, I do have a much better understanding of their desperate need to be heard. For many of them, it had been decades of silence and shame, and those few days in Dallas marked the first time they were acknowledged. And even then, the response from the bishops was disappointing.

The problem, I think, still remains: The bishops by and large did not feel that raw pain. They did not treat the sex abuse scandal — which came to light despite their efforts to conceal it and only because a dogged team of reporters from the Boston Globe did not give up — as the real crisis that it was …. and is. What happened to so many children and adolescents — what was ALLOWED to happen, what was, in effect, facilitated by the hierarchy —  is the epitome of evil. Lives were ruined. In the face of that, concern over money and power and influence and protocol is ludicrous. Plain and simple.

Forget the institution. If you mean to follow Jesus and take care of your flock, you have to be willing to burn the institution down.

From what I can tell, the bishops aren’t willing to do that.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Gary Susswein permalink
    June 8, 2012 11:12 pm

    Good piece. You don’t give the 2002 Eileen E. Flynn reporter enough credit — you were pretty darn insightful and sophisticated, even back then, kid.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      June 9, 2012 12:32 am

      Why thanks, Susso. I was learning the ropes from the great Cory McDonald at the time (can you believe it’s been THAT long ago?).

  2. Jack Wirtz permalink
    June 9, 2012 2:35 pm

    Well done (to a turn) Eileen, thank you…

    Institutions tend to pattern themselves after government
    and the Roman Church did exactly that; the Pope as
    Caesar; the Council of Cardinals as the Roman Senate.

    The Roman Catholic Church led the way in institutionalizing
    a religion in the name of Christ; literally usurping the authority
    of Christ in the Church; declaring the Bishop of Rome to be
    the Vicar of Christ, (from the Latin) the “vicarious substitute”.

    Rome split with the Eastern Church in 1054 when she
    declared the Pope infallible, and she did nothing.

    The Reformation split the Church again in the 1500’s over
    Rome’s scandalous behavior, and she did nothing.

    Yet, despite all of their worldly evils from the slaughters of
    Protestants, Inquisitions, abusing aboriginal peoples, and
    of course multiple abuses of her own; none is greater than
    abasing the love of GOD in the religion of Christ

    Rome, historically, has only quit what she can neither
    control nor cover up and it becomes recognized as an
    unacceptable threat to her prestige and power.

    Hmm… something like politics and damage control.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      June 9, 2012 3:09 pm

      Thanks, Jack, as always for taking the time to read and to share your perspective. Much appreciated.

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