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The Forum: "Fraternal correction" in the US bishops' scandal

Phil Lawler

special to


Mar. 31 ( - Should American bishops administer "fraternal correction" to a wayward colleague because of his role in the sex-abuse scandal? Yes, absolutely; what a wonderful idea!

Where should the process begin?

  • Should the US bishops' conference pass a resolution formally condemning the behavior of retired Bishops Ryan, Dupre, Ziemann, Symons, and O'Connell-- all of whom have been credibly charged with sexual abuse themselves? Certainly. But that hasn't happened.

  • Should the conference reprimand Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop Pilarczyk, and Bishops O'Brien and McCormack-- all of whom signed away portions of their own pastoral authority to stave off legal prosecution? Yes. But that hasn't happened, either.

  • How about questioning the wisdom of driving a diocese into federal bankruptcy courts, as Archbishop Vlazny and Bishops Skylstad and Kicanas have done? That might make sense, too. But it hasn't happened.

  • What about a rebuke to Archbishop Weakland and Bishop Lynch, for dipping into diocesan coffers to make 6-figure payoffs to settle sexual-misconduct lawsuits? Good idea. Hasn't happened.

  • Or how about a general statement those American bishops denouncing who defended, coddled, promoted, and covered up for predatory priests, rather than turning them over promptly to civil authorities for prosecution? Well, such a resolution could not gain majority support within the US bishops' conference, unless the prelates had the honesty to denounce themselves.

Through the past 5 years, one American bishop after another has been exposed for aiding and abetting sexual abuse, if not for participating in the abuse himself. The US hierarchy has been disgraced. In a cover letter released on March 30, along with the latest report on the crisis, the president of the US bishops' conference, Bishop William Skylstad, shows his grasp of the problem (if not of English usage) by writing:

The past years have been a humbling experience: to be cast in the glare of publicity as men who failed in our responsibility.

Having failed-- and their failure is undeniable-- how could the American bishops restore their credibility? One simple method would be to set minimum standards for episcopal responsibility, and issue public criticisms of any bishops who failed to meet those standards. In June 2002, the US bishops met in Dallas to establish just such standards.

But then a curious thing happened. The bishops shirked their duty once again. At that meeting in Dallas, under the glare of unprecedented media scrutiny, the US bishops rushed to approve a policy that established standards of behavior for priests, religious, parochial-school teachers, parents, and children-- but not for bishops themselves. The only clear responsibility imposed on bishops by the "Dallas Charter" was to ensure that everyone else in their dioceses was being held to the standards of the new policy.

At that Dallas meeting, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, rose to suggest that the bishops should address their own failures. The solution that was being proposed, he argued, did not fit the problem at hand. Rather than creating new policies and procedures, and establishing a new panel (the "National Review Board") to monitor them, Bishop Bruskewitz argued that the bishops should shoulder their own responsibilities. When his arguments were ignored, the doughty bishop from Nebraska made it quite clear that he did not consider himself bound to obey this new National Review Board.

On March 30, the National Review Board recommended that the US bishops use "strong fraternal correction" to rebuke Bishop Bruskewitz, because he has refused to cooperate with the Board's annual audits of compliance with the terms of the Dallas Charter.

To put this suggestion in perspective, keep in mind that Bishop Bruskewitz has not been accused of molesting children, nor of aiding molestors. He has not been accused of bankrupting his diocese, misusing diocesan funds to pay off plaintiffs, or sacrificing the religious freedom of the Church to avoid prosecution. His only offense-- if it is an offense-- is to refuse to accept the authority of the National Review Board.

As a matter of canon law, Bishop Bruskewitz is on very solid ground. The National Review Board has no canonical authority; it can only ask other bishops to coax renegades like Bruskewitz into compliance.

But beyond questions of canon law, there are more important questions here: Should Bishop Bruskewitz be willing to sacrifice his own personal privileges for the greater good of the Church in America? Is the work of the National Review Board so important that it should override the authority of a diocesan bishop? In short, is Bishop Bruskewitz standing in the way of necessary reform?

If scrupulous compliance with the "Dallas Charter" could restore the credibility of the American hierarchy, then Bishop Bruskewitz might rightly be criticized for his non-compliance. But nearly 4 years after that Dallas meeting, the bishops' obsessive focus on the Charter has done little or nothing to inspire public confidence.

The latest "audit" of diocesan compliance with the Charter illustrates the problem:

  • There were 783 credible new accusations of sexual abuse lodged against American clerics in 2005. This was seen as progress, measured against the previous year's standard, since there were 1,092 credible charges in 2004, and "only" 523 priests were accused last year, as against 756 the year before. But 10 or 20 years ago, the vast majority of Americans, Catholic or not, would have been appalled to learn that there were 20 such reports.

  • Among the incidents of sexual abuse by American clergy reported in 3005, 81% involved male victims. But the US hierarchy persists in the denial that the sex-abuse crisis is linked to homosexuality.

  • In 2005, American dioceses paid out $466.9 million dollars-- nearly half a billion--for victims of sexual abuse and related legal fees. That represented an increase of nearly 300% over the 2004 figure of $157.8 million. The price being paid by the American Catholic laymen, to compensate the victims of the bishops' failure, is enough to feed several Third-World nations. And… …in 2005 the US bishops paid $13 million to support offenders-- that is, those accused of molesting children.

Do you feel confident now that the situation is under control? Is there anything in this latest catalogue of horrors to inspire confidence that the sex-abuse crisis is being brought under control?

With the release of this week's "audit" report, the US bishops' conference asks American Catholics to believe that the sex-abuse problem is finally being resolved, thanks to the diligent work of the National Review Board. But if that Board seriously believes that reform begins with the "fraternal correction" of Bishop Bruskewitz-- rather than of those bishops who betrayed the faithful and betrayed the children-- then the problem is as grave as ever.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved