Washington Notebook

June 16, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 22

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


Hierarchical Housekeeping

By Joe Feuerherd

Washington Notebook is reporting from the June 16-18 spring meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Chicago.

 In June 2002 the US bishops, operating under the glare of nearly 1,000-accredited journalists, met in Dallas and publicly hammered-out their response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

What a difference three years makes.

The approximately 80 journalists covering this year’s largely-closed spring meeting in Chicago are scratching their heads. Where’s the news?

To be sure, there is some controversy. Will the bishops vote to spend $1 million for another study of the causes of the sex abuse crisis? (Given the budgetary constraints the Conference faces, and the frustration of some bishops with the whole question of sex abuse, this may be a contentious issue when they are asked to vote on it tomorrow, June 17). Will they make substantial changes to the revised “norms” which govern their treatment of clergy sex abusers? (Unlikely, for to do so would require a new round of negotiations between the American bishops and curial officials who make up the "mixed-commission.") 

In making the case for the revised norms implementing the Charter, Chicago Cardinal Francis George said the bishops made three pledges in Dallas: “to reach out to those who have been victimized,” to deal with perpetrators, and “to create an environment in our church that protects children.”  

Said George, “We have kept those promises, with some difficulties and sometimes unevenly, but it has worked.” There’s every reason to believe that George’s characterization (“it has worked”) is widely shared among the bishops.

The institution has successfully institutionalized its response to the clergy sex abuse crisis: the vast majority of dioceses have “victims assistance coordinators,” lay-run review boards, and programs to train church workers and volunteers about child sex abuse. Canonical cases against priest abusers are moving with some speed through the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

Sex abuse survivors and critics of the hierarchy’s handling of the crisis are not, as they were in Dallas,  invited to address the assembly. Those days are long gone. Instead, the victims -- like the gay rights activists and others critical of the church -- protest outside the fancy Fairmont Hotel where the meeting is conducted. A dozen or so  pro-women priest protestors greeted the bishops Wednesday evening as they gathered to concelebrate mass at the Holy Name Cathedral.

The new members of the National Review Board were introduced to the assembly June 16. Talented and educated people no doubt (several went to Harvard), but not of the stature of former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, or Washington powerhouse attorney Robert Bennett. As part of the revised charter, the bishops are expected to formally require that members of the Review Board be blessed by their local ordinary prior to appointment. “It’s the no-more-Frank-Keatings rule,” quipped one wag.

Keating, a blunt-spoken former FBI agent and prosecuting attorney, famously compared the bishops to the mafia in their handling of the sex abuse crisis before resigning as chairman of the review board.

The Review Board, notes the revised charter, is not an “independent” body. The Charter makes that clear by drawing organizational lines among the board, the Conference’s General Secretary, the executive committee of the conference, and the Office of Child and Youth Protection.

“We are not in an experimental mode any longer,” George told the post-plenary press conference. “There are no independent people in the church -- it’s a communion -- everyone is related to everyone else.”


There is, of course, another view.

“Time and time again since Dallas, bishops have moved backwards toward the failed policies of the past, not forwards toward real prevention in the future,” Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told a June 16 press conference.

Changes to the canonical norms governing church treatment of abusive priests, said Blaine, amount to “backpedaling.” Blaine focused on four issues:

“Bishops want to give themselves more choices, re-instating the chance to use an internal, arbitrary and unjust church statute of limitations to block victims from exposing and removing accused priests.

"Second, bishops want to define sex abuse more vaguely, replacing a well-established definition adopted years ago by the Canadian bishops with more arcane language citing canon law and the Sixth Commandment. More vagueness equals more bishop’s discretion which equals more chance for abuse.

"Third, bishops want to ‘pass the buck’ even more, by ‘clarifying’ the 'autonomy of religious orders'…

"Fourth, bishops want more control over the allegedly independent National Review Board.”

Over the long term, said Blaine, it is likely that the bishops will backpedal on the core of the Dallas Charter -- the so-called “one strike and you’re out” policy that calls for the removal from ministry of priests found to have abused a minor.

“This never was a tough, binding national policy,” concluded Blaine. “It’s even less of one today.” 


“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” may be dead.

The US bishops will vote June 17 on adaptations to the Order of the Mass, following the International Committee on English in the Liturgy’s submission of a draft translation of the Ordo Missae to English-speaking bishops conferences’.

The memorial acclamation should be eliminated, Bishop Donald Trautman, chairman of the Liturgy Committee, told the assembled bishops because it is not a translation of any of the acclamations found in the Ordo Missae. Further, according to the Liturgy Committee memorandum, “it has not been retained for a theological reason.” Unlike the other acclamations (i.e. “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life….) “’Christ has died…’ is more an assertion of the Paschal Mystery, rather than a unique expression of the gathered assembly of its incorporation into the Paschal Mystery.”

There are no other significant changes proposed to the Order of the M ass. Assuming the bishops' conference approves the proposal, it will be submitted to Rome for a recognitzio, or approval.


The bishops agreed June 16 to consider a statement on their opposition to the use of the death penalty at their November meeting. The collective body of bishops last spoke authoritatively on the subject a quarter century ago.

The time is ideal to tackle the subject again because Catholic teaching on capital punishment has evolved over the last 25 years and there is growing sentiment among Catholics against death penalty, the bishops’ domestic policy committee reported. 


The bishops will vote tomorrow on a statement, Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium. “If we are to respond to the need for more Catholic schools we must seek innovative ways, including the use of tax free bonds, to finance them and to maintain those that currently exist,” says the statement. For a report on church use of such financing tools, see the June 17 issue of NCR.

NCR will feature comprehensive coverage of the bishops’ conference in its July 1 issue.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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