The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicismby David Gibson
Rather than chronicling the well-reported sexual abuse scandal or advocating a particular reform agenda, David Gibson shows how the crisis in the church is unleashing forces that will change American Catholicism forever.
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The Coming Catholic ChurchHow the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism
By David Gibson
Anger and Protest
Rome to Dallas
The heat was on in downtown Dallas, and it had nothing to do with the scorching sun of a Texas June. Central air-conditioning in the luxury Fairmont Hotel took care of the weather. Other pressures were bearing down on the 250 Catholic bishops gathered in the hotel's grand ballroom, and as the morning wore on toward noon it became clear that the gathering storm was beyond their control.
For five months the churchmen had been blasted by a flock outraged not just at the endless reports of priests who had sexually abused minors, but at the revelations that so many bishops had covered up for the molesters, or had reassigned them to parishes where they had struck again and again and again. The hierarchy had only compounded their problems with ham- handed public-relations efforts to spin the scandal. First there were the outright denials, and then the claims of poor record-keeping (which was a tack Cardinal Law tried in Boston, to universal derision). And then, as more stories leaked more damning details, there were the hedging admissions that yes, something bad had happened, but the bishop wasn't at fault. He just got bad advice by psychiatric experts. Or the whole thing was being blown out of proportion by a Catholic-bashing media pandering to a secularized society that dislikes the church's teachings anyway.
A command performance with Pope John Paul in Rome a few months earlier had been expected to help, but that April 2002 meeting had only made matters worse. The Vatican had wanted to demonstrate that the Home Office was in charge and should be trusted to put things right, so they had called the dozen ranking American cardinals to Rome for a two-day summit that became a media circus and a public-relations disaster for the church. At every turn mediaphobic officials of the Roman Curia - the pope's civil service - sought to blunt the Americans' access to the press in public and to rein in the Americans' plans for reform in private. The summit ended in confusion and an embarrassing late-night press conference that was all but boycotted by Vatican officials and carefully avoided by most of the American cardinals, whose whereabouts were a mystery even to their brother bishops.
The joint communiqué released at the press conference was intended to be a road map for healing and reconciliation, but the Vatican couldn't have planned a worse detour. The document's stipulation that only a priest who is "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors" could be subject to defrocking drew everyone's eye and considerable harsh criticism. That the cardinals included a special letter expressing the bishops' solidarity with their priests without a word about the victims didn't help matters. Nor was there any mention of the Catholic laity who make up 99.9 percent of the flock. No reference to their sorrow, their anger, or their possible role in ensuring that such a scandal would never happen again.
Washington's sure-footed Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was stuck selling the statement to the world press at 10:30 P.M., hours after the document had been promised. Why no mention of lay people? "I was looking for it because we had it in there last night," said a clearly exhausted McCarrick, scanning the pages they had spent hours trying to get right. "This document is a document that - words are in and words are out," he added gamely.
The cardinal was telling the truth. Over the previous twenty-four hours, during intense negotiations with Vatican officials, the Americans would agree on language with the curial staff, who would then send the draft to be copied at a shop outside the Vatican, explaining that the Holy See didn't have whatever amounts to the Italian version of Kinko's. When the drafts returned, however, the Americans would often discover that phrases had been deleted. The cardinals "certainly did want to tell the lay people of the United States that they must have a major role in this," McCarrick said, covering as best he could. But the damage was done.
"An awful mess," a senior papal aide admitted later.
Now, however, two months after Rome, the American bishops meeting in Dallas figured that they were back on track. The hierarchy meets as a group twice a year, in Washington in the fall and at different locations around the country for their spring conference. For this spring meeting they had cleared the agenda - normally filled with debates so soporific that the previous year just one wire service reporter had covered the event - so that they could take concerted action. This year, there were nearly eight hundred journalists from around the world checking to make sure they did.
Still, the bishops' timing, once again, couldn't have been worse. While Dallas had been chosen long before the scandal broke, this meeting fell a few days before the fifth anniversary of a $119.6 million judgment against the Diocese of Dallas for shuttling a former priest, Rudy Kos, around parishes even though church officials knew that he was abusing children.
The case reminded everyone that the bishops had been down this road before. Kos's trail of abuse, which started while he was a seminarian, ran from 1977 to 1992. He seduced dozens of boys as young as nine years old using candy, video games, alcohol, sedatives, and marijuana. Plaintiffs testified that they were often invited to spend the night in the rectory with Kos, who sometimes raped them after he drugged them. Many of the victims wound up with lives ruined by addictions. Kos was convicted on three counts of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to life imprisonment on each count. But he continued to portray himself as the victim. He said he merely suffered from a "foot fetish" and was not a pedophile ...
Excerpted from The Coming Catholic Church by David Gibson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
David Gibson is an award-winning religion writer and a committed lay Catholic. He writes about Catholicism for various newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Boston magazine, Fortune, Commonweal, and America. He was the religion writer for the The Star-Ledger of New Jersey. Gibson has worked in Rome for Vatican Radio and traveled frequently with Pope John Paul II. He has co-written several recent documentaries on Christianity for CNN.
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