The Vatican did the right thing when it halted final action by the U.S. bishops on a policy to respond to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, and this is why the Holy See’s decision was correct.
As has been so well indicated, the crisis is worldwide. Many U.S. Catholics understandably see it in terms of the Church in the United States, but the Vatican sees the problem in its full dimension. Sexual abuse of youth, ongoing literally for generations, has had effects little short of catastrophic around the world.
Think about it. Every bishop in Chile had to resign. Once upon a time, over 90 percent of Chileans identified themselves as Catholics. The country had been solidly Catholic since the days of Spanish colonization centuries ago. Now, just over 60 percent of people in Chile call themselves Catholics. Very, very many have left the Church because of the scandal.
The picture in Ireland is heartbreaking. For four long, wearying, agonizing centuries, the Irish held onto their ancient Catholicism despite the relentless persecution of the British. In great measure, because of child sex abuse by priests and nuns, the Irish people are walking away from the Church by the thousands. Then, look at Australia. The list of entire national societies disheartened by sexual abuse of youth is sickening to consider.
What is needed is a bold step forward by the Church, with application everywhere, without exception, and written into the universal law of the Church. This precisely is what the pope intends to put into place after meeting with representatives of the world’s bishops in February, after all data has been gathered, after all options have been drawn with care, and when the best remedies have been found.
Were the U.S. bishops to act now, however noble their intentions, and however attuned they would be to the outrage of millions of Catholic Americans, they would be acting alone, and their policies would have to be modified or qualified, very possibly, when the gathering of bishops in February actually met and acted. What signal would that send? How strong would be their policy?
In addition, given the force of the United States in general, and the impact resulting from the enormous size and vast resources of the Church in this country, any decision taken by the U.S. bishops easily could put the discussions in Rome on the spot. What then would happen? Catholics elsewhere in the world feel virtually coerced by the powerful Americans, so would they ignore any decisions reached by the Roman meeting? How would that help in resolving the problem? Would victims be helped? Would future crimes be prevented?
Some have suggested a plan that would include creation of committees to oversee actions by bishops. If a critical judgment were rendered in the case of a given bishop, he virtually would be expected, if not required, to resign.
So, it is about time. This is what we need! Get rid of the old boy network. Fine, but once this step is taken, a precedent has been set. Other issues confront the Church, and they can be daunting, indeed ominous.
The Vatican knows that bishops who are faithful to the teachings of the Church might not survive if oversight committees in other circumstances thought badly of them. Nothing guarantees that any process, just because it is composed of third parties, everywhere and inevitably will act impartially or in behalf of Gospel values.
The problem is much more complex than might be thought.
Asking the U.S. bishops to delay action until the Church acts worldwide is hardly calling for an end to any process to address sex abuse, indifferent to its staggering dimensions, and to jump to this conclusion simply is unfair and inaccurate.
Evidence is clear. The problem is everywhere and longstanding. Victims, potential victims, and all of us deserve a thorough, universal, and fully accepted, response.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.