Sed Contra: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Bishops

Deal W. Hudson
June 1, 2002

The April 24 communiqué from the meeting of the U.S. cardinals at the Vatican is really an agenda for the June meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas. Although the communiqué failed to spell out a “zero tolerance” policy for first-time sex abusers, its intent is clear: The communiqué, along with the public statements of several cardinals, calls for a complete overhaul of priestly discipline in regard to homosexuality.

Will the U.S. bishops take action? If so, how decisively? And will addressing homosexuality in the priesthood be enough to right the wrong that has been done?

The bishops’ June meeting should be a day of reckoning for the Catholic Church in the United States. If the bishops appear blasé and plead for a “long view” of the issues, the cause will be set back years more than it already has been.

To rebuild the trust of U.S. Catholics in the Church and its leaders and to make reparations to the victims left in the wake of this scandal, the bishops need to address several points at their June meeting:

1. The bishops should make it clear that this is a crisis and that they are not conducting business as usual. Powerful men don’t want to admit their mistakes; they often resort to wiggle words such as “oversight” and “misunderstanding” to explain their actions instead of risking blunt honesty. But without honesty, there can be no trust.

2. The bishops should adopt a penitential posture rather than exhibit the predictable solidarity of mutual denial. Powerful men never want to start over; they want to be seen as building on their accomplishments rather than admitting that an entire set of policies has to be ripped up and replaced.

3. The bishops should publicly acknowledge in unambiguous language that seminaries have graduated actively homosexual priests who prey on minors. The communiqué recognized this fact but did not use the word “homosexuality”: “Even if the cases of true pedophilia on the part of priests and religious are few…almost all the cases involved adolescents and therefore were not cases of true pedophilia.” To uncover and eliminate the homosexual subcultures that have flourished over the past 40 years, the communiqué courageously called for an immediate “Apostolic Visitation” of the seminaries.

4. The bishops should not be intimidated by the charge that they are “scape-goating” homosexuals. All they have to do is a point to the nature of the sex abuse that predominates in the news accounts. One habit that the bishops must change is the unwillingness to challenge dissent. Dissent on matters of sexual morality goes hand-in-hand with the toleration of homosexual activity.

5. The bishops should instruct their priests, in the words of the April communiqué, to “reprimand” dissenters openly, especially on issues of sexual morality and orientation. The risk is great, but it must be taken. A media firestorm broke out when Msgr. Eugene V. Clark spoke openly about the problem of active homosexuals in the priesthood from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. So what? Catholics deserve to hear from their priests the truth that they are taught to believe in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

6. The bishops should invite laypeople with the sound expertise to help with the psychological formation and management of priests. It is understandable that the bishops should want to consolidate and protect their power. But when the clergy create a monopoly on information and influence, this is called “clericalism.” Vatican II supposedly put an end to clericalism by calling on laymen and -women to use their expertise in communications, teaching, finance, and management in service of the body of Christ.

The trouble with this, of course, is that dissenters are saying the same thing. But the solution is simple: Bishops need not include among their lay advisers those who dissent from Church teaching and want to use their access to change doctrine. Laypersons can offer the benefit of their expertise without challenging the bishops’ prerogative over matters of faith and morals.

7. The most important thing the bishops can do is to apologize to the victims of sex abuse and to ask for their forgiveness. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sexually abused Catholics whose main image of the Church is a leering and groping priest. Clearly, the bishops must make a special effort to mend their wounds.

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