Bishop Denounces `False Prophets’ Seeking Doctrine Changes

W By Larry B. Stammer

wASHINGTON – Outside critics and “extremists” within the Catholic Church have exploited the sexual-abuse scandal to “advance their own agendas,” the head of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops charged Monday.

Speaking at the opening of the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which later this week is scheduled to vote on a compromise plan for handling abusive priests, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said his fellow clerics should have “no illusions” about the motives behind some of the attacks on the church.

“There are those outside the church who are hostile to the very principles and teaching the church espouses, and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the church cannot and will never condone,” Gregory said.

“Sadly, even among the baptized, there are those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas,” he said. “One cannot fail to hear in the distance – and sometimes very nearby – the call of the false prophet, `Let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock.’ We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.”

Gregory’s remarks appeared to mark a new assertiveness among the bishops after a year of scandal in which roughly 325 of the nation’s 46,000 priests have either resigned, retired or been removed from ministry. The speech brought applause from many bishops, several of whom echoed Gregory’s themes in comments of their own.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops committee that sets policy on sexual abuse, told reporters, for example, that after a year of focusing on sexual abuse by priests, the time has come for other segments of society to address the issue as well.

Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., said that the church needs to re-emphasize protecting the rights of those priests who are innocent. “We need not make our (innocent) priests other victims of what’s going on,” he said.

In all, the tone of the meeting contrasted sharply with the notes of contrition Gregory and his colleagues sounded five months ago when, at the height of the sex-abuse scandal, the bishops met in Dallas to adopt new policies to protect children against predatory priests. Then, the speeches focused on apologies. On Monday, the bishops’ remarks suggested that they believed the confessional mood had gone far enough.

Gregory did not name the groups he had in mind, but several unofficial Catholic reform organizations have said that the sexual-abuse scandal points to a need for major changes in the church, including an end to the requirement of celibacy for priests, the ordination of women and married men, and an expanded role for lay Catholics in setting church policies.

The head of one such group strongly criticized Gregory’s words. The speech was “a real slap in the face to Catholic lay people,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

“Unfortunately what many of us see as healthy discussion within the church on a crucial issue, he apparently views as dangerous discord,” he said. “I think the message clearly is `we’ve listened to the lay people and the survivors, we’ve drawn up a document and now we’re moving on.’ “

Church officials for weeks have emphasized that they remain committed to removing abusive priests from the ministry. Gregory and others repeated that pledge here. But many bishops, as well as Vatican officials, strongly oppose the idea that the scandal requires more basic changes in church doctrine or structure.

In his speech, Gregory emphasized an issue that has been of great importance to the Vatican – protecting innocent priests from unfounded allegations and seeing that the accused receive due process.

“Priests today too often are being unfairly judged by the misdeeds of other priests, men often long-departed from the ministry or even deceased,” he said. “We need to pay more than lip service to the truth that the overwhelming majority of priests are faithful servants of the Lord.”

Such a change in tone would not have been possible as little as six months ago, Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas said afterward. “He probably could have, but I don’t think anybody would have heard him,” Galante said.

The most carefully watched item of business at the bishops’ meeting will be the expected approval of the revised policy on sexually abusive priests that was worked out last month by representatives of the U.S. bishops and a team of Vatican officials.

Some victims-advocacy groups have criticized the revised policy, saying it is weaker than the original policy approved by the bishops in Dallas.

But the policy won support Monday from Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, chairman of the National Review Committee established in June. Keating told reporters that his initial fears that the revised policy would allow bishops not to immediately report sexual abuse to civil authorities had proved groundless.

“It is an unambiguous mandate to report,” he said.

Overall, Keating said, “we’re satisfied that what was done in Rome is satisfactory for the preservation of young people and the protection of the faithful.”