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Continued: Catholic bishops -- religious liberty, religion's shame

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 6, 2012 - 10:24 PM

Catholic bishops are spearheading a movement of rallies and prayer vigils for religious freedom this summer, which skeptics could view as a classic public-relations tactic of misdirection. The events happen to fall on the anniversary of the most shameful chapter of American bishops' history.

Ten years ago this month, I sat ringside at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Dallas, where U.S. bishops, pummeled publicly because of their gross mismanagement of clergy abuse scandals, were meeting under the spotlight of more than 800 media outlets, hundreds of protesters and Catholic advocacy groups.

For months, story after story about Catholic priests raping children rocked the nation, particularly in Boston, the epicenter of the scandals. Under public pressure and embarrassment, the bishops adopted a policy regarding child sexual abuse in June 2002, even though many of them, like the Vatican, believed the scandals were overblown by the media. The policy had no enforcement mechanism.

As a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, I watched with disgust as intransigent bishops battled mightily over what should have been no-brainer matters, such as whether to report child-abuse complaints to police before conducting an ecclesial investigation. Shockingly, many wanted to give priest molesters multiple opportunities to return to ministry instead of the "zero tolerance" stance that much of the public demanded.

During the extraordinary meeting in Dallas, the bishops' communications team orchestrated tightly controlled news conferences. But the majority of bishops steered clear of the press, so we caught them where we could. One morning, I stepped into an elevator and questioned the Rev. Harry Flynn, then the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, about the bishops' sexual-abuse committee, which he headed.

When I asked why bishops implicated in abuse cover-ups served on the committee, he smiled nervously and only said "God bless you" as he stepped out the door. Another member of the committee, a bishop I'd dubbed "Deep Chalice" because of the sensitive information he leaked to me, complained that Flynn was a dolt who couldn't understand the public anger over the matter. Flynn wasn't alone.

The bishops never excoriated prelates who'd covered up abuse in the way that they've aggressively assailed President Obama these past few months for seeking to protect women's access to contraception, no matter their income or employer. Back then, the bishops said church doctrine didn't allow them to reprimand brother bishops; that was the pope's place.

We know how that turned out: It didn't happen. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, the face of the bishops' ineptitude, was given a cushy position in Rome, from which he only recently retired. Rather than taking responsibility for their failing to deal with predatory priests, most bishops blamed the mismanagement on their predecessors.

Years later, the Vatican's disastrous point man on clergy sexual abuse -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- would become the current pope, Benedict XVI. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, would be put on the fast track to sainthood. Other bishops who served as Vatican liaisons during the abuse debate saw their stars rise, including the Rev. William Lori, recently made the archbishop of Baltimore. It's no coincidence that he heads the bishops' committee on religious liberty -- an issue the bishops are seizing as a public-relations bonanza.

Under public pressure, the Catholic Church stepped up measures to address abuse, which is commendable. But although bishops have repeatedly offered public assurances and data to demonstrate their efforts at dealing with abusers among the clergy, the statistics are unreliable because they include only the information the bishops were willing to provide. Not everyone cooperated.

Moreover, some bishops who paid lip service to zero tolerance of predatory priests failed to live up to that standard after the 2002 policy was adopted. One of the most egregious cases involved Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who allowed accused priest Daniel McCormack to remain in ministry, where he continued to abuse children. McCormack was eventually convicted of abusing five boys.

Ten years ago, the bishops were largely viewed as a sorry and inept lot -- more concerned with protecting predatory priests and themselves than doing right by the victims. That's a far cry from the image they're trying mightily to project today as champions of a conjured-up battle for religious liberty.

Instead of being viewed as weak, they're flexing their ecclesiastical muscles politically in hopes of being seen as strong. Don't buy it. This summer, when bishops are claiming to be victims of a political system that has trampled on their religious rights, take a moment to remember that they had to be publicly humiliated 10 years ago into taking action to protect children from predatory clergy.

The abuse survivors who courageously spoke out and brought the scandals to light were true victims, as well as public-safety heroes.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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