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It's time for laity to step up

Abuse survivor says time is now for "regular Catholics" to take lead


MARK VINCENT SERRANO / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Make no mistake about it. Last month the Vatican roundly rejected the document drafted by U.S. bishops to end child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The Vatican says that a new "mixed commission" of U.S. bishops and Vatican bureaucrats will review three major aspects of the "Dallas Charter": the definition of sexual abuse, the removal from ministry of credibly accused priests and the role of the laity in addressing this crisis.

To question and review those critical areas is to drive a stake through the heart of the Dallas Charter, a document that was already inadequate when it was written in June.

Also, in not addressing the bishops' role in creating the crisis, Vatican bureaucrats have clearly placed protection of the priesthood and preservation of their power above regular Catholics, clergy abuse victims and those still at risk: the church's children.

Sexual predators will use the Vatican rejection as an opportunity to stay in or return to ministry. Recalcitrant bishops, many of whom have not implemented the bishops' guidelines since June, will dismiss calls for change, backed up now by the Vatican.

Let's consider the issues to be reviewed by the "mixed commission."

First, here is how the bishops defined child sexual abuse: "sexual abuse [includes] contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult."

Pope John Paul II said in March that "there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young." How narrow a definition would you accept to protect your child in the church today? Based on this apt proclamation by the Holy Father, the definition as written follows his guidance appropriately, and the "mixed commission" should not counter the pope's directives.

Second, let's consider how a priest accused of sexual abuse is removed from ministry today.

The bishops' document states that allegations must always be reported to civil authorities and must be deemed credible through church investigation before removal from ministry. So only when a bishop has deemed an allegation to be credible, often with the input of a lay review board, can a priest be removed from ministry.

Many accused priests have appealed the decision of their bishops to Rome this year and have every right to do so. Yet there is no canonical right to ministry for those priests accused of sexual abuse of the young. Removal does not equal conviction; it's a prudent step and one taken in other parts of society today as well. Consider, for example, a police officer accused of misconduct who is placed on administrative leave pending further review.

If anything, canon law should be changed to reflect the gravity of this crisis and the danger that children still face.

Third, the Vatican seems to be reeling at the notion that the laity should have any role in reviewing abuse cases – past, present or future. Again, the bishops' document explains how these boards will function to assist in the protection of children and the healing of victims: "This board will assist the diocesan/eparchial bishop in assessing allegations and fitness for ministry ... and give advice on all aspects of responses required in connection with these cases."

Based on that simple reference in the bishops' document to the laity's role, Vatican bureaucrats clearly do not want the input of lay people. Lay people, though, represent a far greater hope for children's safety and victims' healing than any bishop in America, and they should be a part of the solution at every level.

This brings us to the issue of what is next for the crisis.

For starters, for priests to have perpetrated evil against children does not mean that they cannot redeem themselves in God's eyes. It means that they don't deserve the honors bestowed on them through the sacrament of ordination, that which provides tools of the trade for sexual predators. At the very least, no predator should be allowed a place in ministry ever again, as 93 percent of American Catholics in recent polls have concurred.

Also, we must have new laws in every state to deny sexually predatory priests, and their sponsors in church leadership, the chance to keep devastating young lives. It is time for the laity to fill the void of moral leadership left by the bishops and to build a plan that will protect their own children. We should all work with legislators and prosecutors now to protect our children from predatory priests.

Vatican bureaucrats cannot be relied upon to bring moral leadership to the church. U.S. bishops have been expected to lead, follow or get out of the way. They have failed to lead, they refuse to get out of the way, and so it is time for them to follow those with the most at stake in this crisis, the laity and their children.

The Vatican rejected the bishops' child-protection plan. Now, regular Catholics must take the lead for the sake of their children.

Mark Vincent Serrano is a clergy sexual abuse survivor. He is a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and lives in Leesburg, Va.


Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests