Bishops seeking plea bargains

by Ken Briggs

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The letter was like one of those from the bank, reminding you how special you are to them, reviewing everything they've done to upgrade your life, then offering you a chance to return the love by taking out a home equity loan.

Except this one from Bishop John Barres, dated three days after Easter, circled around to another kind of pitch. As read to Catholics attending mass in his Allentown, Pa., diocese, it began by acknowledging the "prevalence of the sin and crime of child abuse," noting that the diocese was "not untouched" by this scandal but hastening to add that it was "just as important" that the church was enforcing "zero tolerance" through a wide variety of strategies. The bishop wanted Catholics to know that the church was doing its utmost to protect their children. While admitting no culpability in fostering the menace, which was inferred to be much bigger than the church, parishioners could be sure the diocese was on the prevention side.

That billboard was the prelude to the punch lines at the end of the letter. Bishop Barres hoped that goodwill spawned by the diocese's initiatives would impel parishioners to urge their state legislators to kill a bill that would end limits on the right to file lawsuits against dioceses by victims of church-related sex abuse. The bill's leading backer was a committed Catholic, Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Bethlehem) who claimed he was raped by an Allentown priest during his teens.

Bishop Barres warned that passage of the law (two weeks later it won House approval handily, 180-15) could trigger dire results including "crippling damage awards" and the "very existence of some ministries." Understandable disaster from an institutional standpoint. Similar letters were being dispatched from lecterns in parishes across the state at the behest of the Pennsylvania conference of bishops.

Two cradle-Catholic friends who trundle to their respective churches every weekend told me separately that they were outraged by the letter and came close to walking out of church. They were appalled by by the suggestion that they join the bishops' fight against an opening of lawsuits on behalf of victims. Each said he'd never before even thought of storming out of church in protest. But there they were.

The Pennsylvanian bishops made it clear they weren't trying to prevent legitimate crimes against church personnel from being prosecuted. Their priority, as guardians of the property, was to stem the tide of court awards from suits claiming that church leadership had enabled abusers to evade prosecution. Juries had tended to sympathize with such litigants.

Bishops' conferences had been campaigning against similar vulnerability across the country. Among their arguments, one was quasi legal, that older cases could be undermined by poor memory, deceased witnesses and missing evidence. The burden of the challenge, however, was that it would ruin the church.

It might, even though it offers a measure of justice to victims. But it comes across as hardly adequate to the larger task of reconciliation. A lawsuit might be the best achievable end, but it doesn't answer the call to the kind of community envisioned in Acts, I John and the Last Supper, among other places. That would require a much more profound experience of honest confession and forgiveness than the courts or public rituals and gestures can accomplish.

One requirement, I believe, is that both accuser and victim grasp vulnerability. Victims had it forced on them, though sometimes it takes a long time for it to be understood. The ordained clergy may have known a form of that feeling but generally don't show anything like it in their public roles. There's where this discussion comes in. In order for bishops to approach a level of vulnerability at all equivalent to that of victims, I think they'd have to be willing to give up their entire store of goods. If the courts take away the whole material diocese, all the symbols of authority, is the church lost or does holding on to as much as possible make reconciliation impossible?

Remember the young ruler who grilled Jesus about how to get into heaven? He'd done everything he knew to earn a spot, following every one of those commandments, which was no small thing, but something told him he'd missed something. Well, there was one thing, Jesus said. Just sell all you have and give the returns to the poor. Scripture says the young man went away "very sad, for he had many possessions."

By the same token, you'll recall that Jesus got angriest over child abuse, implying that legal solutions were not by themselves enough and radical divestment of some kind might be necessary. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble," read his words, "it would be better to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." 

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