Next month, Roman Catholic bishops in the United States will discuss the church's sex abuse scandal, and develop policy changes for dealing with reported abuse by priests. In preparation for that meeting, the head of the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese organized more than two dozen open forums to give ordinary Catholics a chance to offer their thoughts on the scandal and how it should be addressed.
About 150 people attended the forum at Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago. It was one of 38 places where Chicago Catholics gathered Tuesday night. Many people offered ideas on what to do with priests who abuse children, some just wanted to express frustration over the church's handling of the matter so far. A few, like Alberto Saldovar, came to share their personal stories. "In 1957 or 1958 I was abused by a priest," he said. "I have never spoken about this. My girlfriend sort of talked me into this, telling me this was something I should do."
Mr. Saldovar has two small children of his own now and wants to make sure they won't go through the same thing as him. He's angry over reports that some American bishops over the years have simply transferred abusive priests to other parishes. "I think these priests need a chance," he said. "I think they need to be heard and be helped. To be switching them around to different schools and different parishes, that is not going to work. They are just going to keep on doing what they are doing."
In recent months, there have been reports of abusive priests throughout the country: in big cities like Boston and New York, as well as small towns like Hannibal, Missouri and Coal City, Illinois. Claire Noonan of the Catholic reform group "Call to Action" says the church should find out and publicize just how big this problem is.
She said she wants "A complete report from every diocese in the country, including the number of complaints, the number of priests involved, the number of cases reported to civil authorities, the dispositions of those complaints, the financial cost of this scandal and the sources of funds used to cover those costs."
Speakers had five minutes each to make their comments or suggestions. The meeting at Holy Name Cathedral lasted for nearly three hours. Patrick Dwyer suggested a mix of compassion and punishment for abusive priests. "I believe in the story of the prodigal son," she said. "I believe in forgiveness. However, I think forgiveness comes only after justice has been done to the accused people and the crimes have been punished."
Others were not in a forgiving mood. For Steve Shaller, a priest who sexually abuses a child is guilty of a crime and should be treated accordingly. "Would we want teachers, doctors, dentists, any other professionals who have committed serious crimes in their profession against people entrusted to their care to continue to serve?. Absolutely not," he said. "Same for a priest. Out. Out of ministry, out of parish, out of public exercise of priestly duties."
Some speakers urged people to be careful about believing every accusation of abuse against a priest. John Touhy recalled such an accusation of abuse made about ten years ago against Chicago's Roman Catholic Cardinal at the time, Joseph Bernardin. It turned out to be false. "We had better be careful," he said. "We have good people - Cardinal Bernardin is one - who have been damaged by these false accusations. Simply to sit back and say, 'I accuse, therefore off to the state's attorney's office,' is dangerous."
Transcripts from this and the other 37 forums held Tuesday night will be compiled into a single report for Cardinal Francis George to read before he goes to the bishops' meeting. Any policy change the bishops propose is subject to approval by Vatican officials. Joe Murray of Chicago hopes U.S. Catholic leaders will send more than a proposed policy change to Rome. "As part of a sign of healing, I think some of our cardinals need to place their resignation before the Holy Father," he said.
Some speakers suggested parishioners stop putting money in the offering basket or stop going to church until the sex abuse scandal is resolved. Elissa Jarbigian joined the church some years ago and says Catholics should stay in the pews and demand changes instead of boycotting mass.
"I am a cleaning lady, okay? That is what I do for a living, done it for 21 years," she said. "When I get a dirty house, I do not say, 'Pew, I can not do anything,' though sometimes I grumble and swear under my breath. What you do is get out those rags and clean it up. It is the same thing with this."
The bishops' meeting will be held in Dallas, beginning June 13.