Sex abuse cri­sis tops agenda for US bish­ops

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - NATION - BY DAVID CRARY AP NA­TIONAL WRITER

As U.S. Catholic bish­ops gather for their na­tional assem­bly this week, the clergy sex abuse cri­sis dom­i­nates their agenda amid calls from crit­ics that church lead­ers fi­nally bring about mean­ing­ful re­forms to root out misbehaving priests.

The three-day assem­bly that starts Mon­day in Bal­ti­more comes af­ter a se­ries of abuse scandals this year that have been stun­ning in their mag­ni­tude and num­ber.

Bish­ops have sev­eral re­forms un­der con­sid­er­a­tion to craft a stronger re­sponse to the scandals, but some Catholic ac­tivists are de­mand­ing fur­ther steps, in­clud­ing re­leas­ing the names of all clergy ac­cused of abuse and giv­ing a greater voice to abuse vic­tims. One coali­tion of con­cerned Catholics, the 5 The­ses move­ment, plans to post its pro­pos­als for re­form on church doors in Bal­ti­more and else­where to­day.

The abuse cri­sis is fore­most among sev­eral chal­lenges con­fronting Catholic lead­ers, who face con­flict­ing pres­sures on the role of women and LGBT peo­ple in the church. And even though the Catholic pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. has been grow­ing, most Catholics at­tend Mass rarely, and the num­ber of ac­tive priests and nuns con­tin­ues to de­cline.

Set­ting the tone for the na­tional assem­bly, the pres­i­dent of the bish­ops’ con­fer­ence, Car­di­nal Daniel DiNardo of Galve­ston-Hous­ton, asked his fel­low bish­ops to spend the pre­ced­ing seven days in “in­ten­si­fied” prayer, fast­ing and repa­ra­tion.

The bish­ops will con­sider new steps to po­lice their own ranks dur­ing abuse cases, and will likely ap­prove an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by lay law en­force­ment ex­perts of the han­dling of the scan­dal sur­round­ing the for­mer car­di­nal in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“Bish­ops are un­der in­tense scru­tiny and pressure to de­liver on both of these items,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, ad­mis­sions di­rec­tor at St. Joseph’s Sem­i­nary in Yonkers, New York.

In July, Pope Fran­cis re­moved U.S. church leader Theodore McCar­rick as a car­di­nal af­ter church in­ves­ti­ga­tors said an al­le­ga­tion that he groped a teenage al­tar boy in the 1970s was cred­i­ble. Sub­se­quently, sev­eral for­mer sem­i­nar­i­ans and priests re­ported that they had been abused or ha­rassed by McCar­rick as adults, trig­ger­ing de­bate over who might have known and cov­ered up his mis­con­duct.

In Au­gust, a grand jury re­port in Penn­syl­va­nia de­tailed decades of abuse and cover-up in six dio­ce­ses, in­clud­ing Scran­ton and Allentown, al­leg­ing that more than 1,000 chil­dren had been abused over the years by about 300 priests.

Since then, a fed­eral prose­cu­tor in Philadel­phia has be­gun work­ing on a fed­eral crim­i­nal case cen­tered on child ex­ploita­tion, and at­tor­neys gen­eral in sev­eral other states have launched in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

In Bal­ti­more, the bish­ops will con­sider sev­eral pro­pos­als ap­proved by a com­mit­tee in Septem­ber. They in­clude de­vel­op­ing a code of con­duct for bish­ops re­gard­ing sex­ual abuse and ha­rass­ment, and es­tab­lish­ing a con­fi­den­tial hot­line — to be run by a third party — to re­ceive al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct by bish­ops and re­lay them to ap­pro­pri­ate church and civil au­thor­i­ties.

The com­mit­tee also en­dorsed a “full in­ves­ti­ga­tion” into the McCar­rick case that would give a role to lay law en­force­ment ex­perts.

Crit­ics have urged the bish­ops to go fur­ther by al­low­ing out­side in­ves­ti­ga­tors full ac­cess to church sex­abuse records and by sup­port­ing changes to statute-oflim­i­ta­tion laws so that more cases of long-ago sex abuse could be ad­dressed in court.

An­other rec­om­men­da­tion came from a sex abuse task force at Vil­lanova Univer­sity in Philadel­phia, one of the coun­try’s top Catholic schools. It said the bish­ops’ con­fer­ence should re­quire all bish­ops to be­come manda­tory re­porters of sus­pected sex­ual abuse — in the same cat­e­gory as school teach­ers, so­cial work­ers and oth­ers who work with chil­dren.

The step has been avoided thus far de­spite “the ne­far­i­ous ac­tions of cer­tain bish­ops sur­rep­ti­tiously trans­fer­ring sex­u­ally abu­sive priests from par­ish to par­ish, and in some cases from dio­cese to dio­cese, with­out no­ti­fy­ing civil au­thor­i­ties of the sus­pected abuse,” the task force said. “Amer­i­can bish­ops should never have the op­tion of look­ing the other way and re­main­ing si­lent again.”

Most states in­clude clergy among manda­tory re­porters, but some do not.

The abuse cri­sis over­laps with in­creas­ing ten­sions in the U.S. Catholic church over its ap­proach to LGBT peo­ple. Some con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists have blamed the sex abuse on the pres­ence of gay men in the priest­hood, even though church-com­mis­sioned stud­ies have dis­puted that claim. There’s also been a con­ser­va­tive back­lash to ef­forts by some lib­eral Catholic lead­ers to pro­mote a more wel­com­ing at­ti­tude to­ward gays.

The church faces sim­i­lar pres­sures over the role of women. U.S.-based groups urg­ing the Vat­i­can to al­low women to be­come priests have made lit­tle head­way, but they re­main ac­tive — in some cases ap­peal­ing for a pol­icy change to let women serve as dea­cons.

Aware of such sen­ti­ments, bish­ops and priests at­tend­ing a multi­na­tional Vat­i­can meet­ing last month called for a greater pres­ence of women in church de­ci­sion mak­ing.

All these chal­lenges co­in­cide with re­lent­less de­mo­graphic pres­sures. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data from Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Ap­plied Re­search in the Apos­to­late, the num­ber of Catholic priests in the U.S. has fallen from 59,192 in 1970 to 37,181 last year while the num­ber of nuns has dropped from 160,931 to 45,605.

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