Catholic bishop calls for healing church rift

Leader of conference urges reconciliation with sex abuse victims

November 11, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a speech stressing hope and conciliation, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged his colleagues yesterday to re-establish a sense of Christian community in the beleaguered church.

Addressing nearly 300 bishops at their semiannual meeting here, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory encouraged them to reconcile with sexual abuse victims, talk more openly with lay members and consider the criticism they have drawn since the church's priest sex abuse scandal erupted nearly two years ago.

"Even we bishops need to reflect on our own need to accept just criticism, to apologize and to forgive - not only in our relationships with the faithful, but in our commerce with one another," said Gregory, bishop of Belleville, Ill.

"Rather than being something that divides us, the sexual abuse crisis can and should become a rallying point not only to make the church a safe environment for all children, but our whole society as well," he said.

Meeting opens

Gregory's speech opened a four-day meeting at which bishops will address issues that range from guidelines for socially responsible investment to same-sex unions - which the church firmly opposes. They will also hear an update on a report planned for release in February that will - for the first time - detail the scope and nature of the church's sexual abuse problem over the past half-century.

Gregory's speech - more conciliatory than some past addresses - drew praise from fellow bishops and some of the church's lay critics. Steve Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, an organization pressing for more accountability in the church, said the call for a sense of community provided an avenue for the church to begin to heal its divisions.

"I believe this is a very powerful message that Catholics can respond to positively," said Krueger. "It does not let our diversity define us. It says our community defines us."

A hopeful tone

Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, said Gregory's hopeful tone reflected some of the progress the U.S. church has made on the sexual abuse scandal, the worst in its history.

Since the scandal emerged in Boston last year, the church has established a discipline policy for abusive priests, and more than 300 have either resigned or been suspended.

Gregory "is aware that now, all across the country, the dioceses have taken this very much to heart and are implementing these policies to protect children," said Keeler, who won praise for publicly disclosing the names of priests accused of sexual abuse in his archdiocese.

"If we can overcome the whole abuse [problem] in the culture today, it would be an enormous victory for goodness," he said.

Not everyone who read Gregory's speech was entirely pleased.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Gregory should have pressed bishops to visit each parish affected by the scandal to encourage more victims to step forward.

"Generally beautiful, soothing words that typically lack follow-through," Clohessy said of the address.

Speech a contrast

Gregory's speech yesterday contrasted with the one he gave here last year, when he accused church critics of using the sexual abuse crisis to advance their agendas. He appeared to be referring to groups supporting gay rights, a married priesthood and female clergy.

It also differed from a speech this fall to a group of religion reporters in which he criticized the media for covering the scandal "obsessively," as though it were "breaking news."

One of the subtexts of Gregory's speech yesterday was the need to alleviate polarization in the church over contentious issues and return to respectful discussion - a message that resonated with some of his fellow bishops.

"Unfortunately in our society and now in our church, folks at the extremes in the church don't have civil dialogue," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles. "We, as people of the Gospel, have got to be able to listen to each other and speak to each other."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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