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Catholic Leadership Is Looking to Past, Not to Change, as Response to Scandal

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN - November 16, 2002

For many Roman Catholics, the sexual abuse scandal that shook the church to its foundations this last year has been the best argument in centuries for fundamental change, starting with eliminating the all-male celibate priesthood.

While the scandal raged, Catholics of diverse cultures and ages often said the same thing in interviews. If bishops and priests could be parents or women, they would have pilloried priests who they knew were molesting children, not reassigned them to parishes where they could have access to more victims.

As the church leaders ended the four-day fall meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this week in Washington, it was clear that their prescription for curing the church was not wholesale change, but fidelity to Roman Catholic teaching and tradition.

"The revelations of sexual abuse, which are obviously so much against our call to be holy wholesome men, stimulate us to call for all the faithful to consider what it means to lead a holy wholesome life," said Archbishop James P. Keleher of Kansas City, Mo.

Phase 1, which the bishops say they have begun, is "purifying" the church by rooting out priests, deacons and even bishops who violate minors. In Washington, the bishops voted overwhelmingly for a policy that they insist amounts to zero tolerance, although victims of abuse are not convinced.

Phase 2, for which many prelates began laying the groundwork at the meeting, is to lead the church back to "holiness" by proclaiming core doctrine and discipline. A corollary is shunning the notion that the church should change, allow married, gay or female priests or rethink teaching on birth control, divorce or sexuality.

"These are things in the church that are not policies," said Auxiliary Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit, rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. "They're doctrines, and they aren't ever going to be negotiable, For us to explain ourselves as a church, we need to say that."

Archbishop Keleher and Bishop Vigneron are among the eight prelates who drafted a plan that won little publicity at the conference but that could be a pivotal event for the church in United States. The panel began a call for a Plenary Council, a historic gathering of American bishops. The last one was in 1884.

One hundred and six bishops, about a third of the total, signed the call, Bishop Vigneron said. The bishops gave the idea a green light this week, and they will take it up again at their next meeting, in June. Such endeavors move slowly in the church. The earliest a council would be held is in 2004.

The vision is for a grand gathering of bishops, theologians, religious women and men and laypeople, as well as Vatican representatives. The meeting, Bishop Vigneron said, would "reinforce the identity of the priesthood," emphasizing the commitment to celibacy and chastity and the importance of daily Mass, regular confession, asceticism and simplicity of life. It would also convey, just by its composition and agenda, that the identity of the priesthood does not include women, married men or gays.

"To people who hold up those avenues for improvement, to say to them, `That's not what we're going to do,' " Bishop Vigneron said. "A council would put us into a situation where we say to the public, `These are our nonnegotiable doctrines.' "

The bishops are well aware that the scandal made the church vulnerable to expectations of change. In the lobby of the hotel where the bishops met, a former priest passed out brochures promoting a married priesthood. Nearby, gay Catholics were on their knees demanding that the bishops serve them Holy Communion.

The former priest, Ron Ingalls, who represents a group in Framingham, Mass., called Celibacy Is the Issue, said, "We think the problem can only be resolved if the laypeople demand changes in the church, which includes a married priesthood and women priests."

When asked whether the abuse crisis had brought the church closer to such changes, Mr. Ingalls said: "Just the opposite. We are further away than ever."

The crisis has given rise to movements among the laity like Voice of the Faithful that demand accountability from the bishops on finances and on their promise to protect children. But Voice of the Faithful leaders have taken pains to say that although they challenge the bishops' authority as administrators, they are not challenging church doctrine.

Still, many bishops are suspicious that what the new lay movements really want is a wholesale revolution that would overthrow the hierarchy and the doctrine. In his speech opening the fall meeting, the president of the conference, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., reflected the effort to draw the line. Bishop Gregory laced his speech with praise for laypeople active in church work and called on bishops and pastors to recognize and encourage laity who seek to "assist" the bishops in parish councils, diocesan finance councils, chanceries and tribunals.

He sounded a warning about Catholics "at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishop in this moment to advance their own agendas."

The bishops are not a monolithic group. At their meeting in Dallas, at the height of the scandal, some bishops whispered to a visitor that they were fed up with a pope who refused to consider ordaining married men or women.

But a vast majority of bishops are company men, appointed by and loyal to Pope John Paul II. At the Washington meeting, they made it clear that those who were looking to them for innovation would be disappointed.

There is one antidote to the abuse crisis, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a conservative Catholic magazine, said at a recent forum. That, he said, is, "Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity."

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Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests