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Background: Catholics in Crisis

June 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The Bishops’ meeting in Dallas. We begin with this report, narrated by Kwame Holman.

SPOKESMAN: Good morning, everyone.

KWAME HOLMAN: After working behind closed doors late last night, the Bishops returned this morning to the public drafting of a policy to respond to sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. The focal point of the morning session was an amendment defining sexual abuse.

SPOKESPERSON: “Sexual abuse: Contacts and interactions with a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult. The child is abused whether or not this activity involves explicit force, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it is initiated by the child, and whether or not there is discernible harmful outcome.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Bishops were concerned the language was broad enough to include innocent contact between a clergyman and a child.

SPOKESMAN: The point is contacts or interactions. How are we going to spell out interactions? Is this going to be a glance? Is this going to be a word? I think it’s very important to make sure we have something… remember, we’re taking the priests out of the ministry for this.

MOST REV. JOSEPH GALANTE, Diocese of Dallas, Texas: What this covers, for example, something that has commonly happened in cases of abuse, the minor is brought into the priest’s room and he’s shown some pornographic videos. He’s doing that; he’s interacting with the minor for his own sexual gratification, whether it’s part of seduction or whatever. Those kinds of things are violations and that is an interaction. It is not necessarily an action or an act that he does to the person.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Bishops voted overwhelmingly for the broad definition of sexual abuse. Later there was debate over when to report a priest accused of abuse to civil authorities.

MOST. REV. JOHN STEINBOCK, Diocese of Fresno, California: I don’t think I could face my priests back at my diocese if I say I’m going to report an allegation if there’s no substantiation, no credibleness to it all, and no reasonable suspicion, because he’s going to be suspected. If it’s turned into the police, it’s going to become public, his name will be totally defamed, and to have no reasonable suspicion at all…I definitely need something in there that’s credible, reason suspicion or something, or our priests are going to feel like we abandoned them and don’t care about them.

MOST REV. ALEXANDER BRUNETT, Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington: I think every Bishop in the country is concerned about his priest and the morale of his priest and therefore would not be reporting frivolous things to authorities. When I see this word allegation, those that have dealt with this problem know that an allegation usually has a date, time, person and offense. That’s an allegation. That’s serious. And the authorities, I think, in my experience, are very grateful for the cooperation. I think they preserve and protect the reputation until that allegation is checked out in some way. And I don’t find– I don’t find the civil authorities offensive or trying to impinge upon my jurisdiction or my responsibility. I think when we have an allegation that has date, time, place, person and offense, that needs to be reported. I don’t think we should be saying we’re going to wait and have some investigation of that reality.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, the Bishops addressed the central question before them: Whether to expel a priest for a single incident of child sexual abuse, so-called zero tolerance.

MOST REV. JOSEPH SULLIVAN, Diocese of Brooklyn, NY: Many priests have admitted their fault, many priests have gone through treatment that the Bishop has assigned to them. Many priests have recovered and acted in ministry successfully and faithfully and won the approval of their Bishops and many priests now are going to be basically excluded from ministry so I believe we have to come to a standard not of zero tolerance but a standard of forgiveness and in some ways we have arrived at a standard of un-forgiveness.

MOST. REV. EDWARD BRAXTON, Diocese of Lake Charles, LA: If we are going to live together as a society, then there are certain things we claim are irreducible minimums: Murder, cannibalism and child molestations are some considerations for the irreducible minimums that we have to accept. And we say if we allow murder or cannibalism or child molestation then we are talking about a society that isn’t worth anything. It’s falling apart. And every one of those issues, murder, cannibalism, incest and child molestation, are cultural and social taboos and are contrary to Catholic moral wisdom.

KWAME HOLMAN: In his closing statement, Bishop Joseph Sullivan noted the documented silence on the Bishop who covers up abuse.

MOST REV. JOSEPH SULLIVAN, Diocese of Brooklyn, NY: My opinion is that we are not going to speak about dramatic action or admission by the Bishops in terms of their own intolerant behavior or behavior – it’s more than one act. It’s many acts that have been seen and the realization was that these are good men; no Bishop I know would ever willingly put a child at risk intentionally. The reality is that we were blind, and we were able to, in some ways, be able to deal with this. We took victims into consideration. We took the abuser into consideration. We were concerned about the Church.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late this afternoon in Dallas, the Bishops approved the policy forbidding abusers with direct contact with parishioners but keeping them in the priesthood.

SPOKESMAN: 252 votes were cast, 239 yes, 13 no, no abstentions, the action item passes. (Applause)