The Bishop and the Prosecutor

New York Times/June 7, 2003
By David Gibson

As drama, the agreement announced this week between the prosecutor and Roman Catholic bishop in Phoenix could not match the many other shocking episodes in the church's clergy sexual abuse scandal. Over the past year and a half, hundreds of victims have come forward, hundreds of priests have been dismissed and five bishops have resigned in disgrace.

Yet the 14-point settlement between the Maricopa County prosecutor, Rick Romley, and Thomas J. O'Brien, the bishop of Phoenix, may have consequences that will dwarf any other development in the crisis. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Bishop O'Brien admitted that several times during his 22-year tenure he placed children in harm's way by transferring priests who had been accused of sexual abuse to parishes, and that he never informed either the priests' new superiors or parishioners. Bishop O'Brien also had to apologize and agree that the diocese would pay hundred of thousands of dollars to compensate and counsel victims of sexual abuse.

What is truly revolutionary, however, are the structural reforms the agreement requires. In seeking to protect himself from criminal charges, Bishop O'Brien agreed with Mr. Romley's demands that he cede some of his power by appointing a priest to assume the bishop's role in overseeing the diocese's sexual abuse policies. In addition, Bishop O'Brien must appoint an independent youth protection advocate who will make all decisions on reporting allegations about priests without asking for the consent of any diocesan personnel.

"The bishop has been taken out of any oversight role," Mr. Romley said. "He becomes ceremonial in a lot of ways." This remarkable statement marks a small but significant shift in the balance of power between church and state - a battle that has existed since the Middle Ages, when popes and princes jousted with one another.

The famous turning point in the struggle came in 1076, when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman emperor, Henry IV. The emperor had incurred the pontiff's wrath by asserting his own power to appoint bishops within his realm. Such was the pope's spiritual authority at the time that Henry IV eventually capitulated and received absolution - but not until he knelt in the snow for three days outside the pope's mountain castle at Canossa in January 1077 begging forgiveness.

This incident set the course of church-state relations - and the dynamic between clergy and laity - for the next 1,000 years. In the post-medieval world, church and state came to embody the parable of the elephant and the whale, each unchallenged in its own sphere but helpless in the other's. Yet even as revolutions pushed the secular world toward democracy, the papacy over the centuries increasingly asserted the rights of bishops to control every aspect of church life.

Catholic dioceses in many respects remain one of the last redoubts of absolute monarchy in the modern world, run by bishops who, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, preside "in place of God over the flock . . . as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing." This three-fold mission effectively gave each bishop, who is answerable only to the Roman pontiff, the last word on everything from liturgy to finances. Until this week.

In the only other criminal admission to emerge from the scandal, Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., signed an accord with the state attorney general last year acknowledging that there was enough evidence to convict the diocese for child endangerment. But in that case the diocese rather than the bishop was the target, and Bishop McCormack did not have to compromise his own authority within the diocese. Likewise, the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop of Boston, did nothing to alter the authority structure of the Boston archdiocese.

With this week's plea agreement, it is a government prosecutor, not the Vatican, that is requiring a bishop to share authority in the realm of governance - the third and least sensitive charge in the prelate's brief. If the church had encouraged bishops to share such authority sooner, it might have avoided this outcome in the first place. A more collaborative diocesan administration would also better protect children by ensuring that abusive priests could not be hidden by fellow clerics.

There is still time for the church to embrace openness. More transparency would not only help to restore the sagging morale of lay Catholics who are questioning whether any structural change is possible. It would also allow bishops to focus more fully on their central duties of encouraging faith and worship. Moreover, sharing power on administrative matters does not entail any reworking of Catholic theology or doctrine.

Unfortunately, the Vatican seems to view any compromise as a step toward doctrinal populism. If church leaders continue to stonewall, then prosecutors will force them, at the point of an indictment, into compromises that will in the long run do more to undermine the church's structure and spirit. If instead the Vatican loosened its grip on a few of the peripheral elements, the church's hierarchy might find that the long-term benefits would outweigh any short-term loss of power - or of a prestige that barely exists.

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