Vatican abuse summit: Demand for accountability 'legitimate'

New controls on bishops ‘a step that may have to be taken’

ROME -- Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, is the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. He’s attending the four-day “Towards Healing and Renewal” symposium as the official delegate of the U.S. bishops, and this morning he sat down with an exclusive interview with NCR.

The following is a transcript of the interview.

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This morning you heard an Irish victim, Marie Collins, describe how her experiences of not being taken seriously led to what she called a “final death of respect” for church authorities. Can you understand that reaction?

tOh, I can certainly understand that reaction. I’ve not been a victim, so I can’t place myself in her position, but anybody who has been hurt and then not listened to is going to experience further hurt.

Are you confident that someone who comes forward today will be received differently?

tI would certainly hope that their experience today would be fundamentally different. Sometimes, though, the level of pain and anger is such that it creates a wall that makes dialogue difficult. That’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a reality. Those of us who are charged with listening to and respecting victims have to find a way to get around that wall. It’s a pastoral obligation.

I can only speak about the experience of the United States. Because we have been down this road for such a long time, and we’ve had so much experience dealing with abuse in the church, I would expect that a victim today would be received with much respect and much openness.

Part of the purpose of this event is for church leaders in places that have already experienced the sexual abuse crisis to share their experience with the rest of the world. Do you think there are also things the church in the United States can learn?

tThe church represents a broad range of experiences. It’s true that so far we’ve heard from Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, all countries that have had a lot of experience in dealing with child abuse. But I don’t know that this conference is intended to have one part of the church teach another part of the church. I believe that as this conference goes on, there will be an opportunity for a lot of dialogue among members of the church from different parts of the world. The developing countries have a different experience, and therefore they’ve learned different things which they will be able to teach those of us who have dealt with child abuse in different ways.

Are there particular things you’re looking to learn?

tThere are certain issues which have already come up in the conference, that are problematic. The whole question, for instance, of ‘safety plans.’ How do we provide proper monitoring of offenders? In a free society, even the civil authorities can’t really monitor offenders. They have certain laws about where they can live and so forth, but once an offender is off probation, I don’t know that there’s much monitoring that takes place. So, what does this mean for us, especially for diocesan priests?

There’s also the question of spiritual counseling for victims. I think as pastors, we would love to see victims reintegrated into the life of the church, but that’s a very difficult question. There’s so much pain and anger with many of the victims, that broaching the subject of reintegration is difficult. How do we do that?

The issue of safety plans came up in Monsignor Stephen Rossetti’s talk. He seemed to be raising a caution about laicizing abuser priests on the grounds that it means cutting ties entirely, so it’s more difficult to exercise supervision and insure on-going treatment. What do you make of that?

tThe church’s primary obligation when an ordained minister has violated a child is to assure that the perpetrator no longer has any official role that provides access to children. The reality, however, is that in a free society, unless a person is locked up it’s almost impossible to prevent an individual from having any access to children at all. The church has no authority to lock people up. I think we have to be realistic about that. There are certain steps that can be taken to try to have some understanding about where an offender might live, and some plan whereby we can assure he’s seeing a therapist or getting medical treatment and so forth. But to make sure that he’s never having any contact with any child anywhere is probably unrealistic.

Do you buy the argument that the church has more leverage if the guy is removed from ministry but not laicized, as opposed to being laicized?

tCertainly, certainly. But again, once the man is removed from active ministry, removed from any kind of office or ministry in the church, the leverage that we have is rather limited. I’ll tell you a little anecdote. I was with a group of lay people the other day, our diocesan pastoral council, and one woman said she had just discovered that the bishop does not have the authority to fire priests! There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the kind of control that a bishop has over priests. It is not some kind of total control like parents may have over five-year-olds.

Marie Collins also raised the issue of accountability, especially for senior leaders in the church. Critics often argue that the church now has strong accountability for priests who abuse, but not for bishops who cover it up. Is that a legitimate criticism, and if so, what should be done about it?

tIt is a legitimate question, and a legitimate concern. It came up in Cardinal Levada’s talk last night, in which he was quoting from the [May 2011] circular letter [of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] with regard to bishops and major superiors. There’s really nothing in the law, explicitly in canon law, that places a burden on bishops and major superiors at the present time, at least that I’m aware of. It’s a moral responsibility at this point. I don’t make the law for the universal church. Should there be some kind of regulation? That’s a good question. If there is, is it going to be enforced?

And if so, how?

tExactly. Really, only the supreme authority of the church, meaning the Holy Father, can enforce the law with regard to bishops. Child abuse is a very serious issue, and I think Pope Benedict is very serious about, so this may be a step that has to be taken.

You mean creating some new provision in the Code of Canon Law for holding bishops accountable?

tEither in the code, or outside the code but still in the form of binding law. Sometimes the code can’t bear everything. There are other ways of creating law in the church.

The idea would be some new kind of vigilance over bishops and superiors exercised by the Vatican?

tYes, correct.

Critics will say the church can have the best anti-abuse policies in the world, but it doesn’t mean much if they’re not enforced. In the U.S., people point to the recent Grand Jury report in Philadelphia or the indictment in Kansas City and say, “the church isn’t applying its own policies.” What do you say to such criticism?

tI think the church is taking the issue very seriously, and has been doing so. Yet no human organization is perfect. There are going to be mistakes and inadequacies. It’s the nature of the human person. I think we have to be careful to understand that simply because there is a failure in one diocese or another, it doesn’t mean the whole Catholic church is failing.

At the same time, every time there’s an inadequacy in one place, today it causes an alert in the rest of the church. I can tell you that when the Grand Jury report came out in Philadelphia, and when the incident occurred in Kansas City, I took notice. I was much more alert about certain things within my own diocese. I think we’re learning from our mistakes, and from the failures that may occur in other places. There’s simply not going to be, however, a completely perfect solution.

The question is: When those inevitable failures occur, what’s the response to it?

tWe’re not living in a perfect world, so you can’t expect people to be punished for making honest mistakes. The question, of course, is when is it no longer an honest mistake? When is it malfeasance, or neglect? Those [questions] should be judged somehow. Right now, we don’t have any kind of formal system of accountability with regard to bishops. As you know, we have some bishops in the United States who do not fulfill all of the requirements of the charter [adopted in 2002]. The charter was by gentlemen’s agreement, it’s not binding. The essential norms are [binding], and they mirror many provisions of the charter …

But not all … for example, they don’t require participation in the audits.

Correct. The Holy See, which is responsible for governing the whole church, has to take the whole church into consideration when it makes law. The charter is something that’s unique to the United States. Even though the Holy See can make law for particular countries, it’s rather hesitant to do that. An individual country can make law for itself that’s binding with the approbation of the Holy See, which is what happened with the essential norms. I wasn’t part of that process, so I’m not sure why the audits weren’t included.

Even there, even if you have law, a person who’s accused of not following the law has the right to a defense. He might be able to demonstrate through testimony that he has not violated the law. There’s always two sides to the question, and I think the bishop in a given case should have the right to demonstrate that he hasn’t broken the church’s law.

My guess would be that those bishops who have worked hardest to apply the charter and the norms are the ones most frustrated when breakdowns occur, because you know that it calls into question the integrity of everyone’s efforts.

tThat’s correct. I think that we’re probably going to see more of that as time goes on, and as the problem of child abuse becomes more manifest in some of the developing countries. We’re likely to find that the response there was just as inadequate as it was in the United States. There will be news stories, and horrific tales will be told.

You’re worried the take-away will be, ‘The church still has not learned its lesson’?

tExactly. People are going to be saying, ‘See, the church isn’t doing anything.’ We’ll still be stuck in the deep hole that has been created. I’m very conscious of that. None of us likes to see a failure to deal with the problem anywhere in the world, and I think we’re trying very hard. My only point is that being human, there are going to be inadequacies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean bad faith. It doesn’t necessarily mean indifference to the problem. I do think that at least in the United States, we are long past a time of indifference.

Do you agree with the assertion that the church in the U.S. has adopted such strong anti-abuse policies that it’s now a social pioneer?

tI believe that’s true. If you are a catechist or a coach, anybody working with young people in our parishes, you would say, ‘Boy, the church sure is taking this matter seriously.’ But the hole we’ve dug is so deep that people, including many Catholics, have a hard time appreciating and understanding how much work has been done in this area. There’s so much anger and mistrust that a ‘good news story’ about what we have accomplished is hard for people to hear and understand.

You have to rebuild trust before the good news can be told?

tI don’t know how to do that. I’ll be honest, I’m very frustrated. I’m not sure there’s whole lot more we can do in terms of programs and policies.

Is the answer time?

tI think it’s time, and proving that we’re sincere about this. It’s not something we’re going to do for ten years and forget about it. We’re not at the ten-year anniversary of the charter. We’re going to have to demonstrate to people that this is something we’re committed to for the long haul.

What are your hopes for this symposium?

tAs I mentioned before, the church covers the whole world. It’s sometimes difficult for people in the United States, or for that matter any part of the world, to appreciate how complex and diverse the church is. One of the things I hope comes out of this symposium is a better appreciation for that complexity on this issue of child abuse. We in the United States, or in Ireland, have one understanding of the question of child abuse. I’m sure that the understanding in Africa or Asia, maybe in Latin America, is different. Coming to appreciate those different experiences and points of view will help the Holy See be able to make some common policies or common law. It’s difficult for the Holy See to make law if the whole church doesn’t have the same understanding about any matter. The more common an understanding we can come to on child abuse, the easier it will be for the Holy See to give direction to the whole church.

It’s not just a matter of different understandings, but of different circumstances. For instance, people have criticized the Vatican for not imposing a “mandatory reporter” policy on the whole world. In North America and Europe, where you can basically trust the police, such a policy makes sense. But there are places where you can’t necessarily trust the police. That’s part of the complexity too, isn’t it?

tNo question. There was a bishop from sub-Saharan Africa this morning who asked a question after Monsignor Rossetti’s talk, and that was his very point. In his country, he said, respect for law doesn’t really work very well. Reporting abuse to the civil authorities doesn’t result in very much.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its circular letter last spring, requiring every episcopal conference to develop some kind of protocol for dealing with this. There’s a wisdom in that, because it allows each country to develop standards that will fit the circumstances of that particular country. I presume the congregation will review those protocols, though I don’t know what level of review it will be – whether it will be recognitio, or outright approval, or whatever. But I do think it allows for some level of diversity that reflects the diversity of circumstances around the world. At the same time, this symposium plus all the years of experience the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has had in dealing with these cases will provide some level of standardization.

In general, why does this event matter?

tI would hope that people who aren’t here would appreciate just how important this symposium is. This is not an ecumenical council, or even a synod, but it’s still a rather significant gathering of bishops from around the world. It’s fairly rare that there would be this many bishops from so many different countries gathered in Rome. Doing that in order to deal with the issue of child abuse, I think, is an indication of just how important the topic is, and how serious we, and the church we lead, are about this issue.

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