Editorial | Straightforward message from pope

Editorial | Straightforward message from pope

U.S. Catholic bishops, meeting as a groupin suburban Chicago, get what could be described as a severe scolding from the pope. His message seemed directed particularly at bishops in Illinois who recently were content to blame their predecessors for the clergy abuse scandal in the church.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall as the Catholic bishops of the U.S., meeting in Mundelein, read through a highly critical letter sent to them last week by Pope Francis. His key message was that without personal humility and Gospel-inspired ways of responding to clergy abuse victims, "everything we do risks being tainted by self-referentiality, self-preservation and defensiveness."

Indeed, that self-preservation instinct came through clearly from many of the bishops in Illinois after Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a preliminary report in December that said that the church had seriously understated the number of priests in Illinois who had been accused of abuse.

Madigan's report said the six Illinois dioceses "have lost sight of both a key tenet" of policies laid out by the church as well as "the most obvious human need as a result of these abhorrent acts of abuse: the healing and reconciliation of survivors."

Soon after Madigan's report was released, the local dioceses each issued statements that solemnly apologized for the past abuse but uniformly threw past bishops, priests and administrators under the bus.

Take, for example, this statement from the Peoria Diocese: "Since 2002, the Diocese of Peoria has removed 15 priests from ministry. In these cases, the abuse occurred prior to 2002, and in most cases occurred many decades ago."

Or from this self-congratulatory statement from the Springfield Diocese: "Since 2002, our diocese has promoted an environment of awareness and safety that is certainly on par with leading organizations throughout the country, and in some ways more advanced than many, at least in its maturity. Our Review Board and Special Panel have been in place and effective for more than 15 years, and our safe environment awareness and prevention efforts have been widely implemented and successful.

Unfortunately, the implementation of our safe environment, beginning in the early 2000s, was prompted by very public and scandalous revelations of sins in our own clergy, including one of our own bishops."

The pope wrote that the "abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse and the poor way that they were handled" continue to harm the church, as does "the pain of seeing an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation."

Last week, columnist George Will related a remarkable statistic: ex-Catholics are 13 percent of the American population. Many of those former Catholics undoubtedly left the church because of the clergy abuse scandal that included coverups by the hierarchy. How the bishops of Illinois and elsewhere respond to the papal scolding may help determine whether the Catholic Church can regain its credibility and some of its membership.

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