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For Catholics, cautious next steps

Approval by U.S. bishops of their abuse policy was welcome closure to a long process. That was the easy part. Now they must implement their pledge as living reality. MSNBC.com’s Jon Bonné reports.
/ Source: msnbc.com

Approval by U.S. bishops of their sexual abuse policy — with some editing by the Vatican — was, if widely expected, a welcome closure to a long and grueling process. That was the easy part.

Now the bishops face the arduous task of fanning out across the nation, carrying the policy back to their dioceses and implementing their pledge as reality. Catholics across the country will watch carefully to see whether the lords of the church can make good on their promises.

“I don’t think the pot can come off the burner just yet, because it’s not done cooking,” says Mike Emerton, spokesman for Voices of the Faithful, among the most active groups of Catholics that represent abuse victims. “They have a long way to go before they’re even ready to deliver on the promises that they’re voting on today.”

While the new policy sets strict standards for evaluating abuse allegations and seeks to ensure the rights of both accused priests and their accusers, critics take issue with the process it creates — concerns that surfaced even before the Vatican sent back to American bishops a tweaked version of the policy that leaves most of the responsibility for investigating allegations with church officials and not church members.

Because the bishops and other church officials face not one legal standard but two — codes of civil and church law — they must enact the policy with an eye to satisfying authorities in both worlds, in addition to their parishioners. Those loyalties can often be conflicting: For example, original language was struck by the Vatican that promised officials would “cooperate with public authorities” in cases of adults who were abused as children. And of course, church leaders remain accountable to the church’s 64 million U.S. members. To that end, there may be calls among local groups for more stringent standards than are set out in the policy — the exercise of what Emerton calls “administrative authority” to set a standard that appeases both legal and moral requirements.

Tensions linger
If anything, the church’s very public soul-searching this year has been instructive to its members. Abuse that once might have gone unmentioned or was handled by diocesan officials wary of taking drastic action will be scrutinized by Catholics who have been buffeted by months of scrutiny and what many considered undue criticism of their faith. Sensitivity to abuse cases is higher than ever, and responses to allegations are likely to be swift.

“The people in the pews know that if something comes up ... they need to be going to the police about it and not just dealing with it at home,” says Jennifer Roback Morse, a Hoover Institution fellow and lifelong Catholic who writes on family issues. “What the church has to decide is who gets to wear the priestly collar, who gets to function as a priest. If a man goes to jail or doesn’t go to jail, the church still needs to decide what to do with the guy.”

Just as notably, the bishops’ public statements at this week’s conference in Washington — including some harsh words for lay groups seeking church reforms — point to a deep rift that remains between church leaders and many in their flock.

That tension was underscored Monday when Bishop Wilton Gregory, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned against “those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas.”

The rift has been widening for years — by some accounts as far back as the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which instituted broad church reforms that have been alternately praised and condemned. For Catholic reformers, the revised sex abuse policy and the changes sent from Rome are nothing more than an indicator of the strictness of the very policies they hope to change.

“I think the Vatican is just restating what the reality is in the church, which is that the only people who have rights are the bishops and the priests,” says Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Catholic group that wants the church to allow married and women clergy. “If anything, this should awaken us to the need to relook at how we structure ourselves as an institution.”

Broader issues at hand
That is precisely what the bishops, and most conservative Catholics, would like to avoid — and why this has become such a touchstone moment for the credibility of church leaders.

The months of focus on the abuse crisis have largely sapped Catholic leaders of their ability to stand with moral authority on the issues of the day. It has, in essence, made it all but impossible for U.S. bishops and their key aides to speak in public without the shadow of scandal clouding their appearances.

Nor have the bishops helped their cause in the past several months. Their brief outreach to church reformers at the June meeting in Dallas was essentially reversed, and this week’s meeting in Washington marked a clear return to more traditional church methods — and some puzzling moves on issues besides abuse.

Of particular curiosity to liberal and conservative Catholics alike was the bishop’s choice of a spokesman on a possible war with Iraq. They chose the most embattled among their ranks: Boston’s Cardinal Law, whose handling of abuse cases has sparked almost uniform calls for his resignation.

Power in the pews
To those lobbying for broader scrutiny of church policies — and even to those with little interest in upending traditional practices such as an all-male clergy — this week’s meeting has served as a reminder of church leaders’ long-standing reluctance to be second-guessed. That resoluteness may clash, however, with their effort to convince Catholics that their new abuse mandates will work.

“The only judge of a bishop is the pope,” says Emerton. “They are not empowered to police themselves. So the question that remains is how are they going to hold themselves accountable when they’re not able to?”

Ultimately, crucial choices about the church’s future may rest in the pews. While few religions are imbued with the intriguing and intricate politics that Catholicism promotes, most American Catholics are more interested in their faith than the politics behind it.

“For most lay people, the church is about their local parish and their local pastors,” says James D. Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist and author of numerous books on American Catholics, who points out that only a tiny number of priests have been accused of abuse.

“That means most priests have not violated the trust of the laity. Most lay people don’t know families of victims on a personal basis and so they are more inclined to support their church and their local leaders than they are to be angry and engaging in conflict with them.”