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Zero tolerance martyrs priests to sell-righteousness: Cardinal George battles for common sense in doubts about sex abuse policy. (Viewpoint).

Almost alone, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago has spoken out publicly to express doubts about the prudence of the "zero tolerance" policy the American Catholic bishops may adopt at their meeting this month in Dallas to deal with priests accused of sexual abuse.

He has welcomed the move by local Catholic lawyers to hold open forums to discuss the larger problem before the bishops convene their meeting.

George is responding like a good pastor to the elements that are driving the current discussion on what to do about priests who are accused of sexually abusing those in their care. His brother bishops perceive themselves to be under enormous pressure from their Catholic people to endorse the zero tolerance policy, whose one-strike-and-you're-out simplicity is both appealing and appalling.

The bishops are keenly aware that earlier efforts to define and manage this crisis have not only failed but have led many to believe the bishops themselves have demonstrated either incompetence or complicity in an arrogant cover-up or both. Uneasy lie the heads that wear the miters these days.

But are Catholics really demanding zero tolerance or their bishops' heads if they fail to sign on to this plan at Dallas? Can the bishops hesitate or refuse to act even though most of them understand that this pulsing wound of sexual misbehavior has yet to be carefully diagnosed or treated?

George deserves support, therefore, in asking for an interval in which bishops and people may come to a better understanding of the problem of sexual abuse and its cause before deciding on cures or punishments for it.

The bishops may think they hear the tumbrel rolling to their door, but most Catholics have seen enough of life to accept the need for patience and care in assessing the nature of this problem. Americans in general are fair in allowing any group, from the Boy Scouts to the bishops, enough time to investigate and respond to a failure of trust within their ranks.

Zero tolerance is a draconian punishment to use in response to what may be, as in the case of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1993, a false accusation of sexual abuse against a priest.

It is, in fact, a questionable policy in other settings, such as schools, where it has often resulted in expulsions of students for trivial infractions, such as having a family paring knife in the back of a student's pickup. Felons get three strikes before the jailhouse door is locked for good on them, and even this policy has prompted second thoughts about its justice or its effectiveness when the key is tossed away on a young man caught with a nickel bag of marijuana in his pocket.

Zero tolerance is virtual capital punishment for priests. It destroys their pastoral life and may destroy them as well. The damage is often done by the front-page accusation, even when it is false, and the retraction is on Page 29.

Bernardin, who was George's predecessor in Chicago, was falsely accused in a jerry-built charge that fell apart within a few months. Anybody who spent time with Bernardin during those tense months before his accuser recanted could sense how the flaming arrow of that accusation had struck his innards and may, for all we know, have set free the seeds of the cancer that grew within him and claimed his life.

Bernardin had submitted his case to the independent review board whose development from grass-roots beginnings he had encouraged. Were he accused today, there would be no margin of grace, and he would have been removed from his position before anybody discovered that the evidence that the plaintiff's lawyer boasted about to CNN was, in fact, nonexistent.

The good priests of America are still beloved by their people. They have been living in a deepening twilight, wondering if in that dimming illumination they would be indistinguishable from their brothers who had broken faith with their people.

Now, when an unproved accusation can topple them in broad daylight, they are being martyred to the pettiest and meanest of gods, those of revenge and self-righteousness. If we prize our priests, we cannot stand by while the bishops, misreading their people, prepare to play by Colosseum roles--open the cages and let the wild beasts out.

Every Catholic in Chicago should stand with Cardinal George in what is now his lonely battle to bring common sense and Christian prudence to the manner in which the church deals with priests accused of sex abuse. He is fighting the good fight, and we need--for his sake, our own and that of our priests--to support his efforts to keep this scourge from mining any more lives than it already has.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the recent book The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin's Press.
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Author:Kennedy, Eugene
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 7, 2002
Words:820
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