Catholic bishops told to follow their own policies against sexual abuse

Amid continuing headlines about cover-ups of child abuse in the Catholic Church, an oversight board of lay Catholics on Wednesday … Continued

Amid continuing headlines about cover-ups of child abuse in the Catholic Church, an oversight board of lay Catholics on Wednesday (June 13) warned the nation’s bishops that they must follow their own policies against abuse more rigorously if they hope to restore their fragile credibility.

“If there is anything that needs to be disclosed in a diocese, it needs to be disclosed now,” Al J. Notzon III, head of the bishops’ National Review Board, told some 200 prelates gathered in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting. “No one can no longer claim they didn’t know.”

The meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops comes 10 years after the hierarchy met in Dallas and passed a series of reforms to respond to a siege of bad publicity about sex abuse by priests. It also comes as a jury in Philadelphia weighs the fate of a high-ranking priest who’s facing criminal charges of concealing abuse by clerics, and as a bishop from Missouri awaits trial on charges that he failed to report a suspected child molester to authorities.

In his review of the church’s track record over the past decade, Notzon did not mention the Philadelphia or Missouri cases by name, nor any of the other periodic lapses by bishops over the 10 years since the USCCB passed the so-called Dallas Charter.

While the charter called for punishing priests with a one-strike policy and instituted programs to safeguard children in Catholic parishes and schools, it did not provide any mechanism for disciplining bishops who flout the charter’s provisions.

Because only the pope himself has the power to discipline a bishop, Notzon was left with the only tool he has available: moral suasion and public pressure.

“Now is not the time to drift away from the moral requirements of the Charter and the legal requirements of reporting,” said Notzon, former head of a Texas association of local governments. He was speaking on behalf of the entire 16-member board of law enforcement officials, academics, psychologists and others with experience in institutional management.

“Children must be protected,” he said. “Bishops must continue to work toward restoring the trust of the faithful. Only when bishops are seen as following through on their promise to protect and pledge to heal will the faithful begin to trust them to take care of their most precious gift — their children.”

Over the past decade, there have been periodic lapses by bishops who kept allegations against priests secret, rejected the recommendations of diocesan review boards or simply withheld allegations from their local review boards. Those failures and a lack of accountability for the bishops’ have fueled ongoing skepticism about the hierarchy’s commitment to child protection.

Apart from that challenge, Notzon’s assessment was largely positive as he surveyed the results of reforms over the past 10 years.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, thanked Notzon for “challenging us to keep up the good work.” Other bishops expressed concerns that the public did not appreciate how much they had done, and that the penalties for priests in the charter may undermine clerical identity.

Advocates for victims were more pointed in their assessment of Wednesday’s report. Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, which archives data on the abuse scandal, called the NRB report “gutless.”

“The last thing bishops need is more flattery,” Doyle said. “They need a tough national review board and tough diocesan review boards to challenge them on their continued dangerous practices.”

The bishops also spent the first day of their three-day meeting — the only full day that was open to the media — girding for their ongoing battle to try to change or overturn the Obama administration’s requirement that health insurance policies provide cost-free birth control coverage.

The bishops have been at the forefront of opposition to the contraception mandate, and they have framed the issue as a fight for “religious freedom” rather than an effort to impose the church’s opposition to birth control. The bishops also see religious freedom as a model for pursuing other fronts in the culture wars, including gay marriage and abortion.

The bishops have had some difficulty gaining traction on the issue with the public, however, and are trying to drum up support for their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign — a two-week stretch of services and events that starts June 21 and ends on July 4, Independence Day.

While the hierarchy was united behind their religious liberty campaign, the bishops appeared much less certain about tackling a statement on the economy — the issue that is far more likely to determine the outcome of November’s presidential contest.

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., the bishops’ point man on social justice issues, asked the conference to approve the drafting of a statement on the economy that he called “timely, if not overdue.”

“It has been a long time since the body of bishops has addressed the moral and human dimensions of economic life in light of Catholic teaching,” Blaire said. “This is especially urgent when so many of our people are suffering and wonder whether their church cares and has anything to say about their situation and the economy that has left them behind.”

A number of bishops — reflecting the increasingly conservative slant of the USCCB — raised concerns that such a document could be seen as implicitly criticizing Republican budget policies and could be seen as too political.

In the end, the bishops voted 171-26 to draft a message, tentatively titled “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy,” and scheduled for debate and release a week after the November elections.

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  • jimwalters1

    First, the bishops have got to realize just how much damage their decades of protecting clergy who rape children has done to themselves and the Church. It will take at least a generaation to undo this damage, and it will only be undone if they are diligent and agressive in correcting the problem. Creating a policy and then ignoring it will only make things worse.

    Second, it is very hypocriitical for the bishops to worry that a report “could be seen as implicitly criticizing Republican budget policies and could be seen as too political” when they have no problem at all dedicating two weeks of special activities to openly attacking the Obama administration. The bishops will lose even more credibilty when they go so blatantly partisan by only criticizing Democrats who violate Church teachings and ignoring Republican transgressions.

  • SODDI

    Please note: “their own policies”, not local, state and federal CRIMINAL laws. This is what the catholic church has done all along – followed “their own policies” instead of reporting pedophiles within their own ranks to law enforcement. And this is why the catholic church is a criminal accessory to child rape.

    And also why I am a better person than a catholic bishop (or a Penn State football coach). If I suspect a child is being sexually abused, I’m calling the cops.

  • Mary G.

    When you listen to some of these bishops and cardinals, not all mind you…, they sound to me more and more like psychopaths, knowing they have been found out and have to say something, but it is so usually mealy-mouthed and there seems to be no personal responsibility ever admitted to. And who but a psychopath would shuffle child rapers around to rape again? And not seem to be anguished over it? We have to ask ourselves, and everyone else, why this is so endemic to the Catholic church. It can’t be all explained by lonely, immature men with access to young boys and a lifetime of being indoctrinated to be scared spitless of women. There is something else, some intrinsic toleration of expectation of it even. I hate to think of cult-like things but it sure seems that way. Normal men and women would have taken baseball bats, brooms, whatever they could find and routed the abusers out, and seen that, even if not reported to police, they were put in some segregated place so they couldn’t harm again. Has this ever been done? Have we stifled our normal sense of right and wrong so much that child abuse is preferable to being with a normal adult man or woman? These cardinals and bishops who covered up should be listed somewhere..I am sure they are..as to their collusion in this crime against nature. The cardinals who are offenders should not be allowed to vote for the next pope, and the pope should be under investigation as well. Child abuse can not be the secret core of our religion, period. mg