Expectations for the bishops’ meeting in Dallas in mid-June have gone over the top. More journalists have applied for credentials than applied to cover the Pope’s last visit to the United States. Bishops have contributed to the frenzy by suggesting that, at Dallas, the bishops will take measures to “put this behind us” and the crisis of clerical sexual abuse will be “over.”
It won’t be. There is more to come, and getting at the roots of the crisis will take years, even decades, of work. But the Dallas meeting can do two important things substantively, and it can do one critically important thing symbolically.
The substantive agenda was suggested by Pope John Paul II, addressing the U.S. cardinals’ meeting in the Vatican on April 22. The Pope came straight to the point: “People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.” I take that to mean that classic pedophiles (men with a perverse sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children) are to be dismissed from the clerical state. I also take it to mean that priests who are habitual sexual abusers of minors are to be dismissed from the clerical state. Period.
There are the harder cases of one-time offenses, perhaps involving alcohol, and there are difficult questions about priests who have occasional, but neither habitual nor merely one-time, heterosexual or homosexual affairs. But there need be no ambiguity in the case of the true pedophiles and the habitual abusers of minors. They must be dismissed from the clerical state. If the bishops cannot make this clear at Dallas, and if they do not get the Vatican to fast-track approval of procedures for dealing with such cases, they will deserve the firestorm of criticism that will ensue.
On April 22, the Pope also said that the people of the Church “ … must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.” The Holy Father would not have said this if he did not have good reason to believe that such total commitment has been lacking in some quarters, and that dissent from the Church’s sexual ethic is one of the sources of the current crisis.
That is precisely right. Thus the bishops at Dallas must at least open a conversation about the terms and procedures for a proposed apostolic visitation — a Vatican-mandated study — of all seminaries and religious houses of formation. Such a study is essential to complete the reform of seminaries that has been underway in many instances for a decade, and to begin the reform of the truly troubled institutions — notiviates and religious houses of formation.
In both circumstances, the studies should not be led or staffed by anyone with a vested interest in the status quo or in defending the lax attitudes of the recent past — particularly in regard to sexual misconduct, heterosexual or homosexual. The study of seminaries should be run by bishops who have demonstrated an ability to reform seminaries in their pre-episcopal careers and to attract and nurture vocations by their episcopal ministry. Happily, there are a good number of such men among the younger members of the hierarchy. The study of novitiates should be run by bishops who have nurtured vocations to the consecrated life in their dioceses and who have a clear-eyed view of the current corruptions in too many religious houses of formation.
Beyond this, the bishops must do something to make unmistakably clear that they accept responsibility for the discipline of the clergy, that they are deeply sorry for the episcopal misgovernance that turned serious scandal into Church-wide crisis, and that they fully intend to pursue remedies down to the roots of the crisis in the culture of dissent.
A communal, public act of penance has been suggested. That would be no bad thing, especially if it helped drive home the point that the Dallas meeting is only the beginning of a long and difficult process of fixing what has manifestly been broken in the Church.