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Mary McGrory
The Bishops Come Up Short

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By Mary McGrory
Sunday, June 23, 2002; Page B07

The reviews are in and now it's official: The bishops bombed in Dallas. According to a Washington Post poll, conducted by Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, the U.S. bishops failed to strike a chord with their simmering congregations. More than half the Catholics felt that the bishops fell short in dealing with their big problem in the pedophile scandal, namely, themselves.

It's not what they did but what they failed to do -- whether from a reluctance to judge one another or a fear of Rome. No further proof of the gulf between the priests and the pews is needed than the poll figures about accountability in the hierarchy, which did not make it as an item on the Dallas agenda. Large Catholic majorities said bishops should step down if "they had ever transferred troubled priests to other churches rather than report them to authorities." If they refuse to leave, they should be removed, said the furious faithful.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who was present and voting at the conclave, fits that profile perfectly. His serial transfer of brazen child abusers, one of whom is on trial in Boston on rape charges, precipitated the current scandal. The Boston Globe laid bare his record of coverup and hush-money payments, which he has blamed on subordinates, parents and victims. He has also claimed to have farmed out complaints to inattentive helpers -- an act at variance with his wonted heavy hands-on approach to his pastoral duties: He has decreed limits on the time and number of eulogists at Catholic funerals and forbidden the singing of "Danny Boy," the anthem of many Boston Irish.

Cardinal Law's presence was a confusing and complicating factor in the Dallas sessions. The new policy for pedophile priests manifestly did not placate furious or anxious parents who love their children more than their church. They had defrocking in mind. The bishops designed a kind of Coventry for offenders: They are forbidden to wear the Roman collar, say mass in public or undertake any ministries. The bishops' pledge to report molestation charges to the authorities may make their promises academic.

Nobody expected too much of the parley in Dallas, because a draft issued in advance rejected the doctrine of "zero tolerance," much favored by Catholics since they first heard of what was going on in rectories, sacristies and even confessionals.

The primary problem was not the 252 bishops who gathered to hear themselves scolded and humiliated before the whole world and to listen to the stomach-turning testimony of victims who had suffered terror and pain at the hands of men of the cloth. The overwhelming preoccupation of some of them was St. Peter's.

The meeting began on a high note. The opening speech of Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was little short of majestic. Father Gregory seemed to understand fully the gravity and dimensions of the problem. In the name of the bishops, he made a handsome, fervent, unconditional apology to the victims and their families: "How can we bishops dare to look you parents in the eye and tell you that your children are your greatest treasure if we do not also treasure them and protect them?" he asked memorably.

But some of his eloquence fell away when he was asked on "Meet the Press" about the failure to address the problem of culpable bishops. He fell silent for a minute and then explained, starkly, that the Holy Father does the hiring and firing of bishops.

The underlying problem, of course, is Rome. The bishops fear the papal veto and the embarrassment, not to mention heresy, that could result. John Paul II has been notably silent about the scandal of late. U.S. bishops have registered with apprehension the signals from the Vatican. The pope's inner council has suggested that the crisis is exclusively American and an example of typical U.S. overreaction.

The pope, although he has trouble walking and talking, is dragging himself to Canada and Mexico next month, and will no doubt demonstrate, with spectacular crowds, his great charisma and the pull of faith. It would be wonderful if, on his way from Canada to Mexico, he would stop off at Ground Zero -- Boston -- and clear up a major mystery: Why is Cardinal Law still in office? Is his handling of the scandal regarded in Rome as exemplary?

One of the two brilliant lay speakers at the convention, Scott Appleby of Notre Dame -- the other was Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal -- urged the bishops to cast aside their fear of Rome: "Let Rome be Rome; it will be, in any case."

The Holy Father would find another reason to minister to the devastated Catholics of Boston: The good news in The Post's poll is that they, like the faithful elsewhere, still believe in God and the church, although they have lost faith in its present leadership.

� 2002 The Washington Post Company