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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 02:32 GMT 03:32 UK
Analysis: US bishops face abuse legacy
Bishop Patrick J McGrath talks to campaigners
Bishops have been encouraged to speak out

Arriving at Dallas airport, I spotted two bishops waiting for their bags at the carousel.

I walked up and introduced myself.

We are the ones who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry - we ask your forgiveness

Bishop Wilton Gregory
I was about to ask them about the scandal when a minder arrived with a Bishops' Conference badge on.

"Is this man with you?" he asked the clerics, referring to me.

It was a small illustration of the high-handedness that the catholic hierarchy is often accused of.

This self-selecting band of 300 men who run America's powerful Catholic Church live lives separated from the rest of us by their celibacy and ritual.

Too often, say the victims of sexual abuse, this has caused them to keep their sins to themselves.

Media frenzy

In a normal year, their annual gathering attracts only a handful of journalists.

Victims Craig Martin (right) and David Clohessy hug
Victims say the experience has scarred them for life

But this year they stepped out of their taxis at the conference hotel to be greeted by phalanxes of flashing cameras.

Dressed in their black vestments, they looked like moles caught in the daylight, blinking at the unfamiliar attention.

They understand the gravity of the situation.

Every bishop I spoke to said this was the most serious crisis ever to befall the American Catholic Church.

The question is whether they are confronting it out of a genuine sense of remorse and compassion or whether this is pragmatism at work, like the tobacco companies who changed only after they were hit by a blizzard of lawsuits.

Voices of suffering

Some of the victims camped out in the bishops' hotel, determined to make sure the bishops got the message.

I could talk about nights spent sobbing hysterically

David Clohessy
Four were invited to address the full conference.

For many of the bishops, this was possibly the first time they had heard directly from the victims.

One passed around a photo of a man who committed suicide after years of being abused as a teenager.

Another read out the Simon and Garfunkel song, Sounds of Silence, referring to himself as John Doe, unable to confront his pain head on.

A third talked of how the abuse had left him barely to function as an adult.

"I could talk about nights spent sobbing hysterically," David Clohessy said. "I could talk about nightmares, depression, sexual problems. About how, even now, almost daily, I somehow feel like a fraud."

Bishop 'sorry'

For victims who have been met by years of evasions, denials and even counter lawsuits from their dioceses, the most important words they wanted to hear from these bishops was "We're sorry."

Children protest outside the summit
Campaigners have demanded sweeping reforms

And, in his opening address, the head of the Conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, did not mince his words.

"We are the ones who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry - we ask your forgiveness."

The bishops have been encouraged to talk to the media.

Even those who avoided the cameras couldn't avoid the protesters walking past the hotel and even through the lobby carrying photos of themselves at the age when they were abused.

Fine words

The draft document contains tough penalties for any priest accused from now on of sexual abuse.

And yet there is no harsh words for a bishop who shields a priest.

In truth it is hard to know where this crisis will end.

Despite all the fine words it may still be swept under the carpet.

Or it may fundamentally change the nature of the Catholic Church in America.

The BBC's Rob Watson
"A lot of victims say the bishops are not preparing to go far enough"
The BBC's Tom Carver
"America's catholic bishops pray for themselves these days"
The Church has been rocked by recent abuse revelations

Boston cardinal quits

Around the world



See also:

14 Jun 02 | Americas
12 Jun 02 | Americas
23 Apr 02 | Europe
22 Apr 02 | Europe
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