Voice of the Faithful
Reflections on US Catholic Bishops' Conference
Steven A. Krueger, Executive Director
June 25, 2003
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 –
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
Contrast 3 –
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.