WASHINGTON — The president of America’s Roman Catholic bishops defended American priests Monday, saying a “handful” of miscreants who sexually abused minors have forced the rest of the clergy “to endure an avalanche of negative public attention.”
Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane told a meeting of the U.S. hierarchy that despite that scandal and job pressures caused by the declining total of clerics, three recent surveys show a “high level of morale among priests.”
He also said the overwhelming majority of lay parishioners “appreciate the job their priests are doing for them.”
But Voice of the Faithful, an independent reform group with 30,000 lay members, criticized the bishops for lack of consultation with parishioners and inadequate outreach to abuse victims. David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, added that leaders of the national bishops conference haven’t met with abuse victims the past couple of years, though local bishops have done so.
The abuse problem gained national attention in Boston in 2002 and quickly rose to the crisis level: U.S. dioceses calculate they’ve paid more than $1 billion in settlements and other costs related to guilty clergy since 1950 and more than 11,500 claims of molestation have been made against American priests over that period.
In Monday’s business session, the bishops approved a 2006 national program budget with a $1.8-million deficit to be covered by reserve funds. Much of the shortfall results from programs that the bishops added in order to reform abuse policies and protect children in the future.
Skylstad, whose own diocese is one of three to seek bankruptcy protection, noted the effect of the scandal upon the hierarchy: “There is no question, brothers, that these past few years have taken a great toll on us.”
Bishops are “required by law and in conscience to respond and take necessary action where abuse is admitted or established” but “the presumption of innocence follows priests until the facts of the case indicate otherwise,” he said.
The prelates must do a better job building bonds with their clergy, he said, noting that one survey of priests showed that only 27 percent felt they would be treated fairly if accused.
Meanwhile, Voice of the Faithful leaders complained at a news conference that much of the bishops’ meeting will occur in executive session rather than being open to church observers and the media.
“We were taken aback that half of this meeting is behind closed doors. The bishops should lead, not impede,” said the group’s vice president, Kristine Ward of Dayton, Ohio.
She said the bishops especially need to openly air the ongoing problems surrounding priestly abuse, which she called “the largest crisis in the past 500 years of this church.”
The bishops’ public agenda for today may include brief routine reports on abuse-related programs but no extended discussion, said the bishops’ media spokesman, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco.
The meeting spent more than an hour discussing a new English version of the Mass, projected for completion by 2007, that would supplant the original 1970 translation from Latin.
Approval will require a two-thirds margin among U.S. bishops and those in other English-speaking countries, which may prove difficult. Some U.S. bishops want stricter adherence to the Latin, some favor ease of English understanding, and many fear any changes will upset parishioners at a time when Mass attendance is already declining.
“I’m not quite sure where this whole thing is going to go,” said Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, who represents the U.S. hierarchy on the international translation panel.
After midday today, the bishops will enter closed-door sessions for another day or two, making this the bishops’ most secretive November session since they decided to open up their gatherings in 1972.
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