Reviving Truth and Trust

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Bishop Wilton Gregory, 54, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last November. The word Cardinal is all but stamped on his forehead. Though an early supporter of lay panels to address abuse cases, he is very much a conservative clergyman in the mold of Pope John Paul II, and this week he and his fellow bishops meet in Dallas to discuss how to handle the church's problems. He spoke last week with TIME Midwest bureau chief Marguerite Michaels:

Q. Has this scandal been shocking to you?

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A. It's awful. I'm a priest and a bishop, and I wanted to be a priest from the time I was in the sixth grade. And my own experience of priests from the time I was a youngster has only been of the finest priests that I know. Yes, it's shocking.

Q. What about how it was handled?

A. It was just awful.

Q. These are men you know.

A. This is a group I also respect. It's so unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life in relationship to priests. If we don't get our act together, we'll compound an already awful situation of loss of trust and credibility.

Q. Does the new sexual-abuse-policy draft address your concerns? And even if it is accepted, how do you enforce it?

A. There's going to be a certain publicness about it. Before Dallas, some dioceses had a review board; some didn't. Some had a vehicle for reporting; some didn't. The bishops reported some cases to the civil authorities; some didn't. Now the process is going to be made mandatory and our policy publicized. If you are alleging this has happened to you, this is where you go in your diocese to do something about it.

Q. By canon law, you can't have a mandatory policy [on how to handle abuse cases] without the Vatican's support.

A. One of the reasons we went to talk to them in April was to test the waters. Did I come away believing that every Curial prefect and secretary that we spoke with understood American civil law? No. Did I come away believing that every Curial official that we met with had a much clearer appreciation of the severity of this crisis? Yes. Did I come away with the sense that the Pope and his officers were willing to assist us and support us in the pastoral initiatives that we would take? Yes. Did they give us a blank check? No ... The defining voice in Dallas for me is what John Paul II said to us in Rome: There is no place in the clergy or religious life for those who would harm children. That's the defining law.

Q. How important is this meeting in Dallas?

A. In my humble opinion, this is probably the most significant meeting that the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the U.S. has ever had. This is not the silver bullet. It's the first step in re-establishing a sense of credibility, trust and harmony between the bishops and the Catholic faithful.

Q. Why do you call this the worst crisis?

A. It cuts at the heart of the very fabric of the church. That is a fiduciary relationship. When I was ordained a priest in 1973, I was 25 years old. I was assigned to a very affluent and very significant parish in a northwest suburb of Chicago. They didn't know me. I was dealing with people of significant competence — lawyers, judges, doctors. But the one thing that I had was that I was a priest, and therefore I had credibility. They trusted me with some of the great secrets of their lives. They trusted me with their kids. They trusted me to shepherd them in their faith. To lose the trust of your people is to lose perhaps your most valuable ministerial tool. How can you witness the mystery of Jesus in his church to people who don't believe you? And they don't believe you because you violated the trust they had with you — that you wouldn't harm their children.

It is so central. People know that priests aren't perfect. They know sometimes we're not great preachers. They know we can be cantankerous. They know we may drink too much. They know our flaws. That's not news. And they forgive us that. But to harm their kids...and for the bishops...

Dallas is about us as bishops. The spotlight has shifted from the priest who abuses to the bishop who doesn't handle the situation fairly. We must convince our people that first of all we are terribly open and contrite. And we have a firm resolve to mend our ways.

Q. Don't you also have to explain how you missed what was going on for so many years?

A. I think it was getting things in the wrong order. We were worried about the priesthood instead of the kids. The kids should have been first. Some of the errors in judgment, some of the horrendous mistakes in managing personnel, were done in order to avoid scandal at all costs. Some were done as a result of acting on the information that we had at the time. Some of these fellows who were put back got clean bills of health from the experts who were out there.

Q. How much hiding of the problem is still going on?

A. I think anyone who's sitting on a case he knows about and he's hoping against hope that it won't come to light ... I think he's among the most pitiable of men.

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