Our Opinion: Worrisome stoppage of bishops' conference

For the Roman Catholic Church in America, this week was to have been a time of self-realization, confrontation and admission of past sins, and the development of concrete action to resurrect an institution in crisis. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened its meeting in Baltimore on Monday, attendees were determined to address the 16-year-old abuse scandal that had been re-energized over the summer by a Pennsylvania grand jury's allegations that at least 1,000 children had been abused by 301 priests over the past 70 years. The underlying sentiment was that only a thorough process wherein even bishops would be held accountable for sexual misconduct and/or covering up such acts within their dioceses would return disillusioned former faithful to the church's flock.

As the bishops learned to their shock and dismay at the conclave's opening, orders had arrived from Pope Francis to stand down until a worldwide meeting of senior clergy had an opportunity to meet next February. While the American church has a tradition of following its own procedural path within certain guidelines, the assembled bishops, whether they liked it or not, acknowledged that they owed their fealty first and foremost to the Pope, regardless of how expectant and hopeful victims and laity might greet the news.

In a speech in Estonia in September, Pope Francis acknowledged that the clergy abuse scandal was eroding the faith of Catholics and chasing many from the church. The speech, in which the Pope said the church must change, coincided with a stinging report on clergy abuse of children in Germany. Unfortunately, the Pope's request of the American bishops feeds cynicism that the church does not intend to go beyond words to action.

The abuse scandal, as well as its related cover-up, first came to light in Massachusetts when The Boston Globe broke the story in 2002, and the then-bishop of the Springfield Diocese, which includes Berkshire County, was the first clergyman to be indicted for on a sexual abuse claim. The current Pope, according to his critics, has been less than aggressive in confronting the malfeasance within his organization's ranks, instead choosing to handle the cases of negligent bishops himself rather than through a Vatican tribunal, and by retaining three cardinals involved in sexual abuse cases.

A better approach is that of current Springfield Diocese Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, who wrote, "I remain firmly committed to rooting out this evil in our midst," and who has developed a zero-tolerance policy for all employees (including clergy) under his purview. Additionally, he has promised to institute robust mechanisms to vet clergy, create transparency and develop avenues where past victims are encouraged to register their accusations.

If the worldwide meeting in February offers strict reform measures along with guarantees that they will be carried out, the postponement of the Baltimore meeting will have been but a bump in the road. But by denying American bishops an opportunity to institute reforms that could have set the stage for that meeting, Pope Francis has raised the stakes on that February conclave and put additional pressure on himself to assure that reform is finally carried out throughout the church.


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