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Mary McGrory

The Bishops' Whistle-Blowing Lesson

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, June 9, 2002; Page B07

When the American bishops meet this week in Dallas, hoping to make their peace with American Catholics, they might give a thought to FBI agent Coleen Rowley. She could teach them something they need to know: how to stand up to the home office.

Coleen Rowley, mother of four and long-distance runner, is the whistle-blower who questioned the wisdom of her agency's director in missing Sept. 11 signals picked up in her Minnesota office. As for the bishops, if they are going to mend their tattered ties with the faithful, they may have to take issue with their leader, the pope, who is not just in charge of their church but is, in their believing eyes, the infallible Vicar of Christ.

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A confident, alert person with a small ego and big glasses that keep sliding down her nose, Rowley proved a refreshingingly practical and engaging witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As in her famous 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, she charged that the FBI is a fatally hung-up operation. She berated the bloated bureaucracy, the rigid caste system, the strangling protocol. She bewailed the G-man's controlling instinct of self-protection and the obsessive institutionalism, which are qualities also found in the Roman hierarchy.

Like G-men, priests tend to have a sense of their uniqueness. Priests expect to be treated differently because of what they have given up to serve the Lord -- sex, love, family. What has outraged the people in the pews is that while clerics do not hesitate to impose iron rules on the sex lives of their flocks, they have refused to judge their brother bishops who have committed both sin and crimes in coping with the church's sex scandals, mostly involving small children. The Vatican makes no secret of its belief that it should be allowed to pass judgment on erring shepherds. It's the same row that tore England apart in the 12th century, when King Henry II and the archbishop of Canterbury famously fell out about ecclesiastical courts, which Thomas à Becket thought should have sole jurisdiction over clerical wrongdoing.

Today's crisis in the church has not preoccupied John Paul II, who seems to spend more of his dwindling store of energy on Bulgaria, where he pursued his dream of Christian reunification, than Boston, which is still roiling about the fact that Cardinal Bernard Law remains in residence in his princely episcopal mansion. His Eminence is at the heart of the scandal. He paid huge sums of hush money to victims in secret, out-of-court settlements, and he shuffled shameless pedophile priests -- one of whom allegedly abused 100 small boys -- from parish to unsuspecting parish. His Eminence blames everyone but himself for the wreckage. It is said he stays on at the insistence of the Holy Father.

When the pope convened an emergency meeting in Rome in April, the U.S. cardinals carried with them high hopes of "zero tolerance" and an expanded role for the laity in dealing with pedophile problems. They were overwhelmed by the Roman curia, which seems to feel that the problem is peripheral and parochial. Zero tolerance was extended only to "serial and notorious" offenders, and the inclusion of the laity in decision-making, much favored by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, never made it into the final communique. The subsequent publication in the New York Times of a story about a Vatican-approved magazine article calling on pastors not to report abuse allegations to police and not to inform on alleged pedophiles being sent to a new parish -- for fear of humiliating them -- further discouraged outraged Catholics hoping for justice for small boys whose lives had been wrecked by predatory priests.

Against that dispiriting backdrop, the Dallas draft policy was a relief -- and even represented progress. Mary Jo Bane of the Kennedy School, an anti-Law activist who was once an official of the Department of Health and Human Services, was heartened by the draft apology to the victims and the acknowledgment that child abuse is a sin as well as a crime. "They're getting there," she says, although she wishes the problem of complicit bishops had been addressed. Other critics question the numerological approach to past offenders.

Coleen Rowley was, of course, dealing with a government agency in a democracy. The bishops are confronted with an absolute monarchy and a Roman curia that thinks that the greatest sin is "to give scandal to the church."

An eminently practical and uncluttered woman, who came to the Senate dressed for work, not TV, Rowley demonstrated the kind of coping, common-sense counsel that women are good at, the counsel the all-male hierarchy deprives itself of. The bishops can't be whistle-blowers. It isn't in their contract. But they could show how American they are by facing a problem and solving it. What they can learn from the Minnesota mother is that when you see something wrong, you try to do something about it, no matter what headquarters may think.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company