National Catholic Reporter ®

November 15, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.12

Send This Page to a Friend   | Printer Friendly Version
Longing for an Italian repast; bishops; Buchanan; a favorite papal candidate; the new ICEL; a Conclave correction

Husar* . . . urged the American bishops to not allow their current troubles to distract them from offering moral leadership on the global stage. The rest of the world is looking to the United States for vision, 

    . . .and in this precarious moment, the bishops must not fail to supply it.

*Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine
This is the final column I’m filing from the United States. As soon as I hit the “send” button, I head for the airport to return to Rome. It’s clearly time. I find myself waking up in the middle of the night dreaming of my favorite Italian dish, buccatini all’amatriciana, proof that I’ve been out of the Eternal City too long. 

     I made that observation to Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, whom I know from his days as rector of the North American College in Rome, while both of us were in line at the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt Regency during the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops. Dolan quipped that maybe we need a support group for recovering amatriciana addicts, but in truth, this is one form of dependency from which I have no desire to escape.

* * *

     I stayed an extra week in the U.S. in order to help cover the American bishops’ meeting. The top item on the agenda was the revised norms for sex abuse by priests, which attempt to reconcile the strict “zero tolerance” program the bishops adopted at Dallas in June with the due process concerns raised by the Vatican. Critics saw the Vatican-induced changes as a means of watering down the Dallas norms.

     The bishops clearly wanted to treat the Washington meeting as the beginning of the end of their 10-month nightmare.

     The meeting came just a few days after the American mid-term elections, and like skilled politicians, the bishops in Washington were relentlessly “on message.” They found a thousand ways to repeat the same point: Our commitment to zero tolerance is rock-solid. One act of sexual abuse by any priest, anytime, anywhere, and he’s out of ministry forever.

     Having spoken to a number of the bishops away from the glare of the TV cameras, I have the impression they’re quite serious about this pledge. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, for example, told me flatly that no matter what happens in Rome or anywhere else, no man guilty of sexually abusing a minor will ever get another assignment in his archdiocese.

     Whether the bishops can make this commitment stick in every case, and how the program works out in practice, however, remain open questions.

     On the first point, while the bishops can certainly pledge that every priest who ever abused anyone will be permanently removed from ministry, ultimately any priest so removed can take his case to Rome. The U.S. bishops cannot speak for the Vatican as to how these appeals will be adjudicated. 

     The new norms require bishops to request a waiver from the statute of limitations for sex abuse in canon law (ten years from the victim’s 18th birthday). Several said they expect Rome to grant these waivers almost as a matter of course, and I suspect they’re right. I spoke to a Vatican official on Monday, and he told me that he too expects the Holy See to be “liberal” in trying to support the U.S. bishops. Yet he also said he expected there will be a few cases in which a waiver is denied, either because the offense is simply too old or because the behavior in question is not sufficiently serious.

     Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., a member of the mixed commission and of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, said that even if the Vatican denies a waiver so a canonical process is impossible, norm nine gives a bishop administrative authority to permanently remove a priest from ministry. Yet in that case too a priest has the right to appeal to Rome (a canonical appeal from an administrative act is technically called recourse). His chances of success may actually be greater in the case of an administrative removal, since Rome has long frowned on imposing permanent penalties through non-judicial means.

     Whether a priest is removed through a canonical trial or an administrative act, if he wants to fight the penalty, it will be the Vatican and not an American bishop who plays the ultimate card. Given that, it will be important to watch how ecclesiastical courts in Rome handle these cases. Given the strong bias in canon law in favor of the defendant, and in favor of restorative and opposed to punitive justice, it is likely that at least a handful of these appeals will be upheld.

     I played out this scenario for one U.S. bishop in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He granted its logic, then responded with grim determination: “They’re not going to force me to reinstate a man against my will. It’s not going to happen.”

     It will be revealing, therefore, to watch how these cases play out.

     There are other open questions. For one, the definition of sex abuse remains to some extent vague. The new norms use the standard from canon law, which is “an external, objectively grave violation of the sixth commandment.” What that means is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. This elasticity raises the possibility that one accused priest might be held to a very tough standard by one church court, while another priest would face a very loose standard in a different place. 

     When I asked Cardinal Francis George about this, he conceded the possibility, saying that it works this way in the civil law as well. George said that the bishops might want to consider training the judges who will be handling these cases so there will be a uniform standard of justice. This will be another area that observers will be tracking as this new system goes into effect.

     Another question mark is the reporting of accusations to civil authorities. The Dallas norms required this, while the revised norms simply say that bishops will comply with the civil law. Critics saw this as a retreat, but the bishops repeatedly insisted in Washington that the Dallas charter, as distinct from the norms, still obliges them to a higher standard of reporting. Yet the charter has no legal force, so at least in theory a bishop is free to chart his own course on this point. Certainly people will be watching to see what the bishops actually do.

     Finally, there remains the open question of holding bishops accountable. Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas made the very good point in Washington that the new program actually does contain some accountability measures for bishops. The National Review Board and the new Office of Child Protection, for example, will monitor the implementation of the norms and will publicize the names of bishops who are failing to live up to their commitments. Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul also told me that the church already has a system for bishops to monitor one another in the area of finance. Bishops send their financial statements, for example, to their metropolitan archbishop, who has a sort of oversight authority. Flynn said the same sort of system could be applied to sex abuse cases. 

     The bishops adopted a statement of commitment in Washington, in which they explicitly owned up to their failures in the sex abuse crisis. “We acknowledge our mistakes in the past where some bishops have transferred priests who had abused minors from one assignment to another,” it reads. “We recognize our role in the suffering this has caused, and we apologize for it.”

     These are all worthy steps. The problem, however, is that they all apply to accountability from this point forward. They do nothing to address the question of accountability for the past failures that created this mess in the first place. To date, some 325 priests have been permanently removed from ministry under the terms of the Dallas program. Not one bishop, however, has been removed from office for his failure to intervene when he should have known what was happening, to prevent further abuse. I asked Lori if the bishops could escape this crisis without any resignations, and he simply shrugged and said: “I can’t predict that.”

* * *

     Speaking of exiting from the crisis, there clearly was an effort in Washington by the bishops to act like men who are back in the saddle. They tried to project an air of rounding a corner, suggesting that the long paralysis imposed by the sex abuse scandals was coming to an end. They issued a number of statements, on Iraq, on the kidnapping of Colombian Bishop Jorge Jimenez, on domestic violence, on the U.S./Mexico relationship. 

     They also sent a not-so-subtle message to various lay activist groups not to push too far, that while the bishops adopted a dramatic change in business-as-usual on the sex abuse questions, they are not going to be bullied into adopting broader reform agendas. This note was struck first in Bishop Wilton Gregory’s opening address. 

     “As bishops, we should have no illusions about the intent of some people who have shown more than a casual interest in the discord we have experienced within the church this year,” Gregory said Nov. 11.

     “There are those outside the church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the church espouses, and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the church cannot and will never condone.” When he spoke that line, the bishops greeted Gregory with rousing applause.

     “Sadly, even among the baptized, there are those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas. One cannot fail to hear in the distance – and sometimes very nearby – the call of the false prophet, ‘let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock.’ We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.”

     The less apologetic tone was clear in lots of other ways. Lori, for example, did not back down from his decision to ban “Voice of the Faithful” in Bridgeport. He argued that their neutrality on issues such as women’s ordination or optional celibacy is actually itself problematic, since the Catholic Church does have positions on those questions, and any group that fails to support them is not “thinking with the church.”

     There are forces in the church, on both left and right, that have eagerly grabbed hold of this crisis in order to advance agendas for the church that are only remotely, if at all, related to the issue of sexual abuse. Gregory’s comments seemed to be a warning that the bishops will not be bullied into accepting these reforms.

     The bishops were also tougher on the dissenters around the edges of the meeting. They gave the bum’s rush to a small knot of protestors from the group Soul Force, which pushes for the inclusion of homosexuals in all faith traditions. Three of their number were denied the Eucharist at a liturgy at the National Shrine on Nov. 11, and they showed up in the Hyatt Regency Nov. 12 to protest. They were asked to leave, and when they refused, they were arrested by D.C. Metro Police. (Those arrests were, according to spokespersons for the bishops conference, carried out at the request of the Hyatt Regency.) They spent the night in jail, incommunicado, and were finally released late in the evening of Nov. 13. 

     It remains to be seen whether the bishops can really pull off a return to “business as usual,” whether the public trust and confidence needed to move the church forward has really been restored. Much will depend on how they live up to the commitments made in Washington.

* * *

     I did a fair bit of TV during the bishops meeting, most it for places where I routinely appear when there’s Catholic news: CNN, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly on PBS, and lots of local affiliates from markets in which the sex abuse story has been big. I was also invited for the first time to do Pat Buchanan’s program on Fox News. Buchanan, of course, is a Catholic who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and has run more than once for the Republican nomination for president. 

     How right-wing a Catholic is Buchanan? Consider this. As we were chatting on set before the segment, Buchanan told me that he once was a reader of the National Catholic Register, then he moved onto the Wanderer, and finally ended up with the Remnant. The only Catholic option further to the right of the Remnant would probably be sedevacantism, or the denial that John Paul II is the true pope because of his embrace of modernism and inter-religious dialogue. The Remnant is generally sympathetic to that view, but not quite ready to take the plunge.

     Reflecting the temper of the times, however, Buchanan and his more left-leaning co-host were completely in agreement on what they wanted to talk about: Why we haven’t seen a few bishops’ head on platters? On this issue, at least, the leftists and rightists in the secular world seem to be on the same page.

* * *

     One of my favorite cardinals joined the U.S. bishops in Washington, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Readers of my book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election will recognize Husar as my “dark horse” candidate to be the next pope. 

     Husar is bright, modest, pastoral, and as a patriarch of one of the 21 Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, he feels the case for collegiality and inculturation in his bones. He is also one of the most genuinely Christian men I’ve ever met. I was in Ukraine, for example, when the pope visited in June 2001. Many Ukranian Greek Catholics felt vindicated by the visit, since they had withstood enormous pressure from the Soviets to be assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church. Some were publicly pointing fingers at the Orthodox, accusing them of collaboration. (No doubt in some cases a justified charge). Husar, however, stood during the main papal Mass in L’viv and apologized to the Orthodox for any Greek Catholics who might be looking to them with malice in their hearts. It was a marvelous, generous gesture, one that does Husar tremendous credit.

     Husar, by the way, is an American citizen. His family came to the United States as part of the Ukranian diaspora when the Soviets rolled in.

     In his address to the bishops, Husar offered the obligatory note of thanks for all the support offered to the Greek Catholics in Ukraine by American Catholics and by the U.S. bishops’ conference. According to Monsignor George Sarauskas, who runs the Office to Aid the Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe, the U.S. bishops have funneled some $8-9 million to Ukraine since the Greek Catholic church emerged from the underground. Germany, he said, is the only nation that has given more. U.S. Catholics on average give about $2.5 million annually to the Ukrainian church, Sarauskas estimated.

     Husar also urged the American bishops to not allow their current troubles to distract them from offering moral leadership on the global stage. The rest of the world is looking to the United States for vision, he said, and in this precarious moment, the bishops must not fail to supply it.

     I bumped into Husar in the lobby of the Hyatt, and he immediately squinted and said: “Ah, my nemesis.” He knows, of course, that I have been promoting him as a papabile, and has to feign the requisite offense at being mentioned in such a context. The truth, however, is that Husar is far more amused than he is offended at the suggestion; from his point of view, I might as well be talking about him sprouting wings and flying to Mars. 

     I note for the record, however, that a couple of Eastern Rite bishops standing around Husar smiled, pumped my hand, and encouraged me to “keep it up, you’ve got the right guy.” 

* * *

     I passed some time at the Washington meeting with Fr. Bruce Harbert, an English priest from Birmingham who is the new executive secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. That’s the translation body for liturgical texts that has been a political football in the liturgy wars in recent years.

     Harbert is part of the restructuring of ICEL to bring it closer to the approach to translation favored in Rome, which emphasizes fidelity to the Latin originals and protecting the “uniformity of the Roman Rite.” Harbert had been among the critics of the old ICEL, which reflected the outlook of the mainstream professional liturgical community after the Second Vatican Council – flexible and evolving, emphasizing adaptation to the needs of local cultures. 

     There’s no missing the fact that Harbert’s appointment signals a change in philosophy. I caught him after the votes on liturgical texts at the bishops’ meeting, where the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the ordination rite passed with virtually no debate or discussion, and asked what he thought about the almost anti-climactic result. (Both texts have generated intense controversy in recent years). Harbert said that he actually would have preferred a bit more debate, since, he said, it was precisely the absence of debate that critics of ICEL had long lamented. I allowed as to how debate is always a good thing, and Harbert quickly added that in order to be constructive this debate must above all be informed by the original texts.

     Yet Harbert is no ideologue. I asked him if it would be correct to say that the two translations approved at this meeting were the first fruits of the “new ICEL.” He said yes, with the proviso that the General Instruction was actually John Page’s last project. Page was the former executive secretary of ICEL and was closely identified with its approach. Yet, Harbert insisted, when the new philosophy of translation embodied in the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam became official policy, Page immediately organized ICEL’s work in light of those principles. The translation of the General Instruction, Harbert said, is testament to Page’s dedication as a “good and faithful servant.”

     This concern to give Page the credit he’s due speaks well of Harbert. It’s a reminder that we can have disagreements in the Church, sometimes even painful ones, without vilifying one another.

* * *

     Speaking of my book Conclave, I recently received a letter from the EWTN television network concerning an event I narrate involving their legendary founder, Mother Angelica. I wrote in the book that after Mother Angelica criticized the Eucharistic teaching of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles on the air in 1997, “Mahony forced her to sign a retraction and a promise not to do it again. Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, a Mother Angelica supporter, was delegated to personally take it to her in Alabama for signature.” This version was based on information given me by a source very close to the events. 

     William Steltemeier, however, chairman of EWTN, wrote Oct. 30 to offer the following correction: 

     “It is true that Cardinal O’Connor of New York met with Mother Angelica at EWTN in March 1998 in an attempt to obtain a signed retraction, but the retraction was never proffered to her, since it was clear from the cardinal’s conversation with Mother Angelica that she would not in any event sign such a document.” Steltemeier attests that he was present at the meeting. 

     I checked this with my source, who was not present at the meeting, and who had simply assumed that O’Connor was successful in obtaining a signature since he never heard anything about it again. Hence I am prepared to accept Steltemeier’s word that no such signature happened, and will make the correction in further editions of Conclave. But rather than wait, I wanted to get the word out here.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2002 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280