MARGARET WARNER: There were protestors demonstrating outside as some 300 American Catholic bishops gathered in a Dallas hotel this morning to address the sexual abuse scandal in their church. (Singing ) Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, opened the session by admitting failure and promising to take action to restore Catholics' faith in their leadership.
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY, President, U.S. Conference of Bishops: The crisis in truth is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds, because of our failures in addressing the crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and church personnel. What we are facing is not a breakdown in belief, but a rupture in the relationship - in our relationship as bishops with the faithful. Both what we have done and what we have failed to do has contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and church personnel.
MARGARET WARNER: The new wave of scandals began in January in Boston, where Cardinal Bernard Law and his archdiocese were accused of ignoring the abuse of minors by John Geoghan, a convicted pedophile priest. Since then, more than 250 U.S. priests have resigned or been removed for sexual abuse, as well as four U.S. bishops. Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News greeted conference attendees with a report that two-thirds of all U.S. bishops have let priests and other church leaders accused of abuse remain on duty.
The bishops' goal at this conference is to come up with a new policy on handling sexual abuse complaints that will be binding on every Catholic diocese. A preliminary draft released last week calls on every diocese to: Respond to all allegations of sexual abuse and report them to civil authorities; ask the Pope to defrock any priest who abuses a child in the future, and any priest who abused more than one child in the past; establish diocese review boards of mostly lay people to examine abuse claims. The early draft did not address what do to about bishops who had let abusive clerics remain in the priesthood.
At an open session this morning, the bishops heard directly from victims of abuse. Craig Martin, who referred to himself as John Doe, told of being sexually assaulted by a priest who'd taken him on a fishing trip.
CRAIG MARTIN: John remembers the motel that night, with the priest, but hardly anything else. John has no idea how he got home. It is only 35 years later that John is starting to remember that horrible night.
MARGARET WARNER: Martin said his anguish was compounded by the unresponsiveness of the church.
CRAIG MARTIN: I feel church has decided the rules and how the game is to be played. The church also tries to avoid damages caused by its own clergy. Finally, the church wants authority to heal its own members and then make payments as to what they feel is appropriate to John Does.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Bland, himself a former priest, said he was ostracized after he revealed he'd been sexually abused by another priest as a child.
MICHAEL BLAND: After two years, I felt that a separation from the religious community became not an option but a necessity for my own spiritual good, moral integrity, and psychological well-being. I chose no longer to be re-victimized and left religious life. The priesthood lost me but kept the perpetrator. Perhaps he's not saying public Mass, or allowed to be alone with minors, but he has the privilege to wear the collar -- being called Father or baptize, marry, and bury his family. The church has taken care of him.
MARGARET WARNER: The bishops also heard from Catholic thinkers, who urged the bishops to give lay Catholics a greater voice.
SCOTT APPLEBY, University of Notre Dame: Bishops and priests must trust the laity, appropriately share authority with them, and open their financial, legal, administrative practices and decisions to full visibility. They must give a compelling account of the faith that is within them and address controversial issues directly.
MARGARET WARNER: Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine, told the bishops they had a long way to go to restore Catholics' faith in them.
MARGARET STEINFELS, Editor, Commonweal: Bishops are among other things guardians of truth. Today you are badly handicapped in this role. How much has been due to an active intent to obscure or deceive? How much to responses made without adequate preparation?
The fact remains that, in too many instances, some of you have said things that later proved to be contradicted by the facts; you said things that were not true. But not all of you did all that. And, yet, like the undifferentiated blur of dark deeds that we see in the paper every day, all of you are subject to the same undifferentiated suspicion, the same loss of trust.
MARGARET WARNER: After discussing the policy behind closed doors, the bishops are due to publicly debate and vote on it tomorrow.