Russell Shaw on the State of the Church in U.S.

«Bishops Got Things Back on Track,» He Says

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WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 28, 2003 ( A group of prominent laity and two American bishops are planning to meet privately in September to discuss the Church’s future and recent sex abuse crisis.

Journalist Russell Shaw, a free-lance writer and author of «Ministry or Apostolate?: What Should the Catholic Laity Be Doing?» (Our Sunday Visitor), is organizing the summit with Crisis Magazine editor Deal Hudson.

The summit will touch on some of the same issues discussed at the U.S. bishops’ meeting last June in St. Louis, Missouri.

Before the announcement of the September summit, Shaw had shared with ZENIT his impressions of the bishops’ meeting and several key topics facing the Church in the United States.

Q: What struck you the most about the U.S. bishops’ meeting in St. Louis?

Shaw: It seems the bishops wanted a quiet, low-key meeting. But if the bishops wanted a quiet assembly, they didn’t get it. The days before the meeting were filled with public disasters, for them and for the Church, that no one could have anticipated.

There were the terrible events in Phoenix. There were the angry comments by Frank Keating, the chairman of the bishops’ sex abuse review board, and his bitter resignation. Things just went from bad to worse, and almost everything focused attention on the bishops and, unfairly for the most part, attempted to hurt their image and weaken their credibility. What a way to set the stage.

Given all that, I thought the meeting nevertheless went better than might have been expected. The review board and the bishops got things back on track, including studies of the abuse problem and the diocesan response.

As for the media, I had the feeling that the journalists felt almost sorry for the bishops, saw them as victims of an exceptional run of bad luck, and tended to pull their punches. It could have been a lot worse.

The bishops also had a daylong discussion of some of the serious pastoral problems facing the Church — things like the decline in Sunday Mass attendance and in reception of the sacrament of penance — as part of their continuing deliberations about whether to seek a plenary council for the United States. This discussion took place behind closed doors.

If there’s anything the bishops need right now, it’s to be seen as pastoral leaders tackling the real issues in Catholic life.

Q: Is the clerical sex-abuse problem being handled well? Why or why not?

Shaw: Actually, most bishops, though not all, seem to have gotten the sex abuse problem pretty well under control 10 years ago by adopting and implementing sensible policies in their dioceses.

The sensational disclosures of the last year and a half have largely concerned the abuse problem as it existed over a decade ago, as well as failure by a small number of bishops to put in place the same policies the others did back in the early 1990s. From that point of view, a lot of the scandal of these last 18 months has concerned things that happened in the more or less distant past.

As for the very tough policy the bishops adopted last year, it seems to be working. What’s new about it is its highly punitive character. All offenders, even those from the distant past, are expelled from ministry.

I understand why the bishops felt that was necessary in the overheated climate of opinion as it was a year ago — and probably still is. In principle, though, it may not be a good idea to take such an inflexible approach, which doesn’t allow for making distinctions among factually different cases.

Q: Did the settlement in Phoenix compromise Church autonomy, as some critics say?

Shaw: I think the settlement can be seen technically as a permissible delegation of authority by Bishop O’Brien. In that sense, it’s not a problem.

But let’s face it — the settlement was reached under pressure from the civil authorities. From that perspective it’s an unfortunate precedent that may compromise the authority of the Church.

Q: Did the resignation of National Review Board chairman Frank Keating have a big impact on the bishops or on the overall investigation?

Shaw: Governor Keating’s resignation cleared the air and made it possible for the bishops, the review board and the child protection office of the bishops’ conference to get on with their jobs.

The governor is a good man who had good intentions, but he had a shoot-from-the-hip style that alienated some people. We can be grateful to him for launching a complex, difficult process, but it was time for him to bow out before he himself became an issue.

Q: Did the Church have the credibility to speak out on the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down Texas’ sodomy law?

Shaw: Unfortunately, the Church’s ability — and especially the bishops’ ability — to speak credibly on things like the sodomy decision, same-sex marriage, abortion and much else has been in decline in the United States for a long time, and it’s been seriously impaired by the scandal and its fallout.

In the important book «The New Anti-Catholicism,» published this year by Oxford University Press, Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University points out that the new bigotry against the Church in America traces its origins to radical politics of the 1960s and since then has been pursued energetically by feminists and gay rights activists, who see the Church as the biggest political obstacle to achieving their goals.

The sex abuse scandal handed them just what they wanted, and it is no coincidence that coverage of the scandal often has been sensationalized by pro-feminist, pro-gay media.

Perhaps the bishops could take steps toward turning over responsibility for formulating and representing the Catholic position on moral issues in the political arena to well-informed, well-motivated lay people. That would be in line with Vatican Council II and with many magisterial documents of the last 35 years.

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