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Voice of the Faithful
Reflections on US Catholic Bishops' Conference

Steven A. Krueger, Executive Director
June 25, 2003

The middle-American city of St. Louis was a study in contrasts during last week’s U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference (USCCB).

A Voice of the Faithful contingent from the national office, as well as members from three Parish Voice affiliates (VOTF-Brooklyn, VOTF-Phoenix, and VOTF-Indianapolis) joined with a new affiliate, VOTF-St. Louis, in representing all our membership in St. Louis. While not allowed to attend the Bishops’ Conference, we were present at the Conference to bear witness and to attend and to participate in the SNAP Conference that also was taking place in St. Louis. Events of the preceding week – from the resignation of Gov. Keating to the arrest of the Archbishop of Phoenix – clouded everyone’s expectations. Still, we organized press conferences and media briefings both to call for the bishops to remain faithful and accountable to the Dallas Charter and to promote dialogue with our bishops. Accountability is the bridge by which trust can be restored – a bridge that leads to justice and, ultimately, to healing.

While many bishops are doing all they can to restore trust and create an environment of accountability, justice, and healing, the Conference as a whole did little to demonstrate the Bishops’ collective commitment to the crisis as they had described it in the Dallas Charter. As they stated in Dallas:

We, who have been given the responsibility of shepherding God’s people will, with God’s help and in full collaboration with our people, continue to work to restore the bonds of trust that unite us. Words alone cannot accomplish this goal.…… We commit ourselves to do all we can to heal the trauma that victims/survivors and their families are suffering and the wound that the whole Church is experiencing. We acknowledge our need to be in dialogue with all Catholics, especially the victims and parents around this issue. By these actions, we want to demonstrate to the wider community that we comprehend the gravity of the sexual abuse crisis.

In St. Louis, the contrasts to this statement were palpable:

Contrast 1 – The Agenda
In Dallas last year, the entire Conference was focused on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. In the days preceding the St. Louis Conference, the crisis was not even on the agenda. Only after the bishops were pressed by the press and the public did they insert a presentation on the topic for Saturday morning – which they then ended early.

Contrast 2 – Task versus Ministry
Last year, the bishops were remorseful in their verbal response to the crisis. This year, the bishops used language that referred to the crisis as an “issue.” Their language and actions portrayed the crisis as a task to be completed, rather than a ministry that will define the Church in this century. Tasks are something you put on a list and mark off when completed. Ministry is a part of your being, strengthened by dialogue and the need to communicate to everyone, often. What some bishops do not understand is that the Church and the public demand that this crisis be treated as a ministry – a ministry for justice and healing for the victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse and for the entire Church itself.

Contrast 3 – The Tone
Last year in Dallas, the bishops spoke out of sincerity and pain. This year, some suggested that the crisis was being exaggerated, while others said that everything that could be done was being done. Yet, many lay Catholics and victim/survivors do not agree with this assessment – as we know from attending the SNAP Conference and from our own regular experiences with victim/survivors and lay Catholics around the country.

Contrast 4 – The USCCB Conference and the SNAP Conference
While we were not allowed into the USCCB Conference, and the media was invited to attend only a portion of that meeting, we VOTF representatives were invited and welcomed to the SNAP Conference. On Friday evening, we listened to the stories of victim/survivors, many of which focused on the re-abuse these survivors have suffered at the hands of the Church, as they seek justice from the Church. These courageous people are telling us what is difficult to hear, but knowing them has brought great consolation to us. One has to wonder what transformation of the heart might have taken place for some bishops if they had been there.

Contrast 5 – Ownership of the crisis versus ownership of the solution
In Dallas and in Washington, the bishops indicated they would take ownership – accountability – of the problem in the preamble to their Dallas Charter and in calling for fraternal accountability in Washington. In St. Louis, the bishops side-stepped their accountability by directing our attention to their solutions. In this way the bishops presented themselves as having everything under control. However, the “solution” to the crisis – which occurred under the watch of many of these bishops – starts with their accountability. In taking exclusive ownership of the solution, the bishops only contribute to the systemic failures of the past. The solution must include the voices of laity, survivors, and clergy as well – it is our Church, too. Unfortunately, neither survivors nor representative laity were invited to attend, let alone participate in these discussions.

It is safe to say that all of us – survivors, clergy, laity, and the bishops – want the Church to overcome this crisis. And it needs to be said that our bishops – like all of us – must be in a position to succeed. In our hearts we know that the only way this can occur is for the truth to be told. They want this crisis to be “fixed” and “over,” and to then move on with business as usual in all other aspects of Church life. However, the Church must unequivocally demonstrate accountability and transparency so that justice, reconciliation, and healing may take place.

The laity must step forward and state their conviction that nothing should take precedence over a pastoral response to this crisis. As followers of Christ we are called to be leaders in promoting truth, justice, and healing. All within the Church must make an unwavering commitment to reflect the face of Jesus at every turn down this long road. Let us keep our bishops in our prayers as they find the courage to meet the challenges that face us all and that we must solve together.





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