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The Faithful Are Angry As Catholic Church Fails To Unite On Addressing Clergy Abuse


This week, U.S. Catholic bishops were supposed to say how they will deal with priests who sexually abuse children and the bishops who cover for them, but their fall meeting in Baltimore ended without that announcement. Pope Francis asked them to hold off. NPR's Tom Gjelten is covering the story, and he's here in the studio. Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: The Catholic Church has been hammered for not having accountability. Why wouldn't they have done something at this Baltimore meeting? Why did the pope tell them not to?

GJELTEN: Well, we don't know for sure. The bishops did have a bunch of proposals ready. Not everybody was on board with them, and the pope may have wanted to avoid the appearance of disagreement among the U.S. bishops. Also, some of their ideas about how bishops might be punished could have conflicted with requirements under church law. So there was a chance that if these had been passed, the Vatican would have had to just shoot them down. That would have been embarrassing. And the other thing is Pope Francis has made clear he wants to steer all this work himself. He may not have wanted any action that would upstage this meeting of his own next February.

SHAPIRO: February is the time that he says this will be addressed. Why wait until then? Why not just do something right away?

GJELTEN: (Laughter) That's the - that is the big question because putting it off until February has certainly raised the stakes for that meeting. I mean, we're dealing with something here that has really become a crisis at least for the U.S. church. One veteran Vatican watchers I was with this week noted that if something dramatic does not come out of that meeting, there will be blood in the water.

SHAPIRO: Why is that the case at this moment? We've been seeing this scandal unfolding for years and years and years. Why is this the moment?

GJELTEN: That's right, Ari. I mean, the big stories came way back in 2002. But back then, everyone was horrified by the thought that priests would actually do these things to children. That was the story. Now what's horrifying is that - is how many bishops have actually let these priests get away with it. It's not the crime these days. It's the cover-up.

Just to give you an idea, back in 2002, the bishops set up what they called a national review board. It was a group of prominent laypeople to advise them on how to handle this abuse crisis. And suffice it to say they have not been impressed by what the bishops have done with that advice. The current head of the review board, Francesco Cesareo, made a presentation to the to the bishops this week, and it was brutal. Listen to this.


FRANCESCO CESAREO: How many souls have been lost because of this crisis? Today, the faithful and the clergy do not trust many of you. They are angry and frustrated. No longer satisfied with words and even with prayer, they seek action.

GJELTEN: So you heard it there, Ari. Bottom line - Catholics have lost trust in their leaders.

SHAPIRO: And I'm sure are furious that action they were expecting this week won't happen until February at the earliest. Well, how did the bishops react to that?

GJELTEN: Well, they were actually a little bit cool to Dr. Cesareo's presentation. Some bishops welcomed it. Others were defensive. I mean, one bishop stood up and basically said, you can't believe everything about clergy sex abuse that shows up in a grand jury report or the newspapers. And guess what. He got a big round of applause.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Well, what, if anything, is likely to happen in February when this meeting happens at the Vatican?

GJELTEN: It totally depends on Pope Francis. One thing is this clergy abuse crisis has gotten a lot more attention here in the United States than in Latin America, Asia and Africa. So if you broaden this and try and treat it globally, there's a danger it won't be undertaken with as much urgency. On the other hand, the pope this week did appoint a very tough investigator to advise him on what to do. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta. That Vatican watcher I mentioned earlier said he's known around Rome as the Eliot Ness of the Catholic Church.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.