The bishops' meeting was dominated by the abuse crisis, reports Christina White
AMERICA'S bishops gathered in Washington last week determined to make a fresh start after a damaging year of scandal and recrimination.
The annual autumn meeting, held this year from November 11-14, is traditionally the key forum for the hierarchy to meet and discuss a variety of issues affecting the Church in the United States. But dominating this year's agenda has been the bishops' response to the clergy sex abuse scandals. They voted overwhelmingly to approve revised norms on dealing with allegations of abuse against priests.
Also approved was the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Both the new norms and the charter demand the removal of any priest, deacon or religious who has sexually abused a minor and incorporate provision for victim support, diocesan and national review bodies and a high level of cooperation with the civil and police authorities.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago led the debate as bishop after bishop stood to praise the revisions, thrashed out in a joint US-Vatican congress in October. The conference was unanimous in apologising for Church leaders who reassigned priests who had assaulted children, allowing the abuse to continue, one of the key criticisms levelled at the Church in the US. But the talk was of renewal. Bishop Wilton Gregory said the mistakes made should not "destroy our communion with one another in the Lord". Bishop William Skylstad of Washington said "we must never give into discouragement even when we fall".
Visiting Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Lviv, Ukraine, told conference that the United States had a duty to restore its image as a moral force. America, he said, "is not only supposed to be the strongest country, the richest country, it is supposed to be a moral force.
"You as religious leaders ... must try to recover that moral leadership for which the US has been regarded, not only for decades but for centuries." He offered his support to the bishops in what has been a time of crisis. "Your joys are our joys. Your sorrows are our sorrows also," he said.
THE BISHOPS' worked quickly through resolutions on domestic violence, abortion, ministry and
liturgical issues with general agreement.
They approved, When I Call for Help, a pastoral response to domestic violence against women and an update on a previous conference response issued 10 years ago. It states forcefully that Church teaching on the permanence of marriage does not force victims to remain in an abusive relationship. "Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage," the document states and it calls for abused persons to seek annulment, which it says "can open the door to healing and new, life-giving relationships".
The revised statement states that "violence in any form — physical, sexual, psychological or verbal — is sinful; often it is a crime as well", and it urged priests and parish personnel to see themselves as a "first line of defence" for women who are being abused, noting that abusers often attempt to isolate victims and Mass attendance may be the only opportunity to call for help.
It also said the Church should offer aid to the abusers, who need "Jesus' strength and healing".
THE BISHOPS issued a brief statement to mark the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs Wade decision, which legalised abortion in America.
They pledged to continue to battle to overturn the decision "no matter how long it may take, no matter the sacrifices required". The statement, titled A Matter of Heart, was approved without abstention.
THE BISHOPS have agreed to review the current Lectionary. They also approved two revised liturgical texts — the general instruction of the Roman Missal and the rites of ordination of a bishop, of priests and of deacons.
THE CONFERENCE voted 254-1 to strengthen ministry among America's growing Hispanic popula
tion. Key recommendations were to increase the number of Hispanic and Spanish-speaking clergy and to do more to prevent Hispanics from leaving the Catholic Church.
THE EXODUS from the Church was a concern raised by Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the papal nuncio to the US. He told the conference that America's bishops needed to be strong in proclaiming the Church's message "amidst the contradictions and tensions" of a secular society, and he warned against pseudo-spirituality no longer in accord with the Christian tradition". Many countries now had large numbers who had lost their faith, the nuncio said, and he called for new commitment to Christian belief in salvation with the Saints and Our Lady as the "icons of holiness".
MORE THAN £1.9 million from the bishops' general reserve fund was approved for costs associated with the national child protection scheme. An overall budget of approximately £34 million was approved for 2003.
IN CONJUNCTION with the Mexican bishop's conference, a joint statement, Strangers no Longer, was issued covering pastoral issues such as immigration and border concerns with Mexico.
THE FULL texts of statements from the US bishops' conference are available online at at http: //www.usccb.org/bishops/index. htm