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Catholics in Crisis

June 13, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s meeting, we turn to Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly that covers the Catholic Church. It was one of the first publications to report on pedophilia in the priesthood, more than 15 years ago.

And welcome, Tom Roberts.

MARGARET WARNER: How unusual…was this spectacle we saw today and we just saw a little bit of here, where you had survivors and non-priest church thinkers openly challenging the bishops in an open way like this, televised?

TOM ROBERTS: I’ve been covering these meetings since about 1985, and this was the most unusual meeting I have ever been to. This was a… I think an unprecedented event. I think Dallas may… this meeting in Dallas may be seen historically as a marker, as some sort of point at which things began to change a bit.

I talked to a lot of old hands who have covered a lot of these meetings, and everyone said this was just a distinctly different moment.

MARGARET WARNER: Listening to the survivors today, just here from a distance on television, they were incredibly moving. How did the bishops respond?

TOM ROBERTS: I talked to one bishop in the middle of the afternoon, and I said, “you heard a lot of difficult things today.” He said, “yes.” I said, “This must be a difficult time.” And his response was, “This is hell.”

I think that bishops have heard these stories in the past, they’ve read about them. But as this one bishop said, referring to September 11,”You know, you read all the stories about people losing loved ones, but it’s when you come face to face with sun that you really appreciate the depth of loss.” And I think in the same way, all of them together in that room hearing the stories, the deep pain and anguish that goes on in a life where that kind of trust has been abused, has to have an effect.

And I understand that the victims’ meetings behind closed doors with the bishops were even more powerful and more wrenching.

They’re getting at least a chance now — some 15 years after this really broke open — to tell their stories face to face in an unedited version, and I think it may have an effect.

MARGARET WARNER: What is the mood of the victims, the survivors? There are even some of the organized groups there. I mean are they… is it angry? Is it demanding? How would you characterize them?

TOM ROBERTS: Well, I haven’t talked to all of them, but I think that David Clohesi could probably, he’s a leader of the SNAP Organization, and I think he could probably be a good gauge for their mood. And we spoke last night, and he said… he’s beyond anger at this point. He was exhausted.

He said when he went into the room to have the private meeting with the bishops yesterday, he didn’t even feel elated because they had fought so long to get there.

And then last night, he received the news that he would get fifteen or twenty minutes before the bishops today, and he went off to figure out what he was going to say. They’re powerful moments. I think there is a sense of having taken a significant step.

But the victims also made clear to the bishops during their talks that they weren’t counting on great change. They weren’t trusting yet because they had been through this process once before, and some of them several times before. And so they were going to wait and see. I think that was the caution that they gave very clearly.

MARGARET WARNER: You said that you thought they might be having an effect. What’s your sense — and I know the meetings are still going on behind closed doors — but of where the bishops are moving on, particularly the key point about what to do about abusive priests?

TOM ROBERTS: What I hear is that the movement has been clearly to some form of zero tolerance. Exactly what form that takes, we don’t know yet.

One bishop I talked to in the middle of the afternoon said that they were still really discussing. And I talked to someone earlier today who has been very close to the negotiating process for the last couple of months, or in the last couple of weeks at least, on where this policy would go. And his feeling was that they certainly were settled on zero tolerance, that one strike and you’re out.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you there. You mean not only for priests in the future, which is what the original proposal.., but also for priests in the past?

TOM ROBERTS: Right. He thought that… he seemed to think, especially after these… the private meeting with the victims yesterday and the public session today, that his words were something along the lines of, anybody who walked out of that room thinking that there was going to be any shading on this or case-by-case consideration just was fooling themselves.

It was so powerful, and I think that also, the public demand for accountability and for a very clear policy at this point has taken the possibility of viewing cases one at a time off the table.

Now, what they are, he said, considering are options to… they’re using the term “taking someone out of ministry,” which I think may help avoid some canonical, problems with church law and also problems with Rome, because anything they ultimately approve here ultimately will have to be approved in Rome.

And they’re under that category taking someone out of ministry, I understand, are considering at least three options: One would be sending someone to a place of penance, essentially the option would be to go to a monastery and I guess in a way disappear for the rest of your life. The second option would be to seek laicization. There’s the person who’s been accused. And the third –

MARGARET WARNER: That’s defrocking?

TOM ROBERTS: Well, defrocking, yes. Yes. In other words, he would be removed as a priest. And then the third one would be would be canonical, or a legal process, which the church would take against someone aiming towards laicization, but that would be a longer process.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about this other issue that the survivors and even some of these lay leaders are talking about — about holding bishops accountable, bishops who’ve let abusive priests remain, have transferred them without telling the new diocese, so on?

TOM ROBERTS: Yes. I was told that this was going to be another point of debate in the room today. I don’t know if the bishops got to that.

We haven’t heard anything from them. But that’s a strong point, and I think it’s not only survivors; you will find among Catholic groups, and Catholic groups who would not have ventured near this kind of a statement six months ago, saying someone… that they can’t come away from this meeting with a policy that only addresses abusive priests.

Something has to be in there about bishops, you know, who have overseen the process, who have moved priests knowing they were pedophiles and abusers from one parish to another.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally on Scott Appleby’s point, from Notre Dame, who said you really have to give more authority to the laity, to lay leaders, the laypeople, do you see any movement in that direction from this meeting?

TOM ROBERTS: That’s a difficult one to predict. And it’s difficult because in all of the lay movements that we’re seeing growing out of this scandal, there are groups gathering in Boston and New York and elsewhere around the country saying, we have to insert ourselves into the governance of the church. We are not going to let this kind of thing happen again. The problem is where to insert themselves.

It’s the same problems the bishops face with moving from the way they have done business in the past to these new ideas, new words like accountability and clarity. There’s really no mechanism at this point for getting from one point to the next. But there is an incredible amount of pressure, and the example today that they would invite, you know, unedited or laypeople who… lay speeches deeply critical of them — I mean all the speakers, including the victims, went very quickly beyond sexual abuse as the problem to the problem of governance.

Scott Appleby used the arrogance of power. Peggy Steinfels said that this was only the beginning. They had to get around to seriously looking at including people, getting back to the business of renewal that started at the Vatican Council in the 1960s, that renewal council. Everyone used that as a kind of a touch point.

So it’s going to be interesting to see what happens after this meeting. I think that they have two constituencies, the broader public, which is demanding accountability, as well as the people inside the church. But there’s a deeper question inside the church, and some bishops have already begun to talk to this, of accountability to the faithful, of reentering that community in a new way. So it’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Roberts, thanks very much.

TOM ROBERTS: Pleasure to be here.