(RNS) The U.S. Catholic bishops' point man on sexual abuse has said that the hierarchy's credibility on fixing the problem is "shredded" and that the situation is comparable to the Reformation, when "the episcopacy, the regular clergy, even the papacy were discredited."
Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., last month told a conference of staffers who oversee child safety programs in American dioceses that he had always assumed that consistently implementing the bishops' policies on child protection, "coupled with some decent publicity, would turn public opinion around."
"I now know this was an illusion," Conlon, chairman of the bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said in an address on Aug. 13 to the National Safe Environment and Victim Assistance Coordinators Leadership Conference in Omaha, Neb.
His talk was published in the Aug. 30 edition of Origins, an affiliate of Catholic News Service.
Conlon said that the conviction of a high-ranking church official in Philadelphia for covering up clergy abuse and the upcoming trial of a bishop in Missouri on charges of failing to report a priest on suspicions of child abuse have contributed to a widespread impression that the bishops "have failed to keep their commitments."
The bishop disputed that view, but said even close friends "turned almost hostile" over dinner recently when he said the hierarchy has adopted "an entirely different spirit of openness and accountability."
Conlon told the conference that the bishops still needed to clarify emerging questions about how to deal with issues like child pornography and "boundary violations" in which church personnel might engage in inappropriate interactions with children that don't yet cross the line into physical abuse.
But he said that the bottom line is that the bishops "are gravely weakened and in need of assistance" in developing policies and changing public perceptions. He told the child safety workers to think of themselves "as an extension of your bishop."
"Our credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded," Conlon said. "You may have a better chance. People -- in the church, outside the church, and hanging on the edge -- need to know that real progress is being made."
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FILE - This undated file image provided by State of California Department of Justice shows former priest and convicted sex offender, Robert Van Handel, who was molested as a student at St Anthony's seminary school and then returned there as a priest where he molested boys in the choir. (AP Photo/California Department of Justice, File)
FILE - In a Tuesday, March 27, 2012 file photo, Monsignor William Lynn leaves the Criminal Justice Center, in Philadelphia. Lynn, accused of moving predator-priests to unwitting parishes, testified Wednesday, May 23, 2012 that he had no authority to make priest transfers. Lynn says he could only remove a priest who admitted abusing a minor. Lynn says he otherwise made recommendations for the cardinal. Lynn is testifying in the ninth week of his child-endangerment and conspiracy trial. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
The Rev. James Brennan allegedly molested a 14-year-old boy in 1996. The accuser testified in court that the sexual abuse led to drug addition, mental illness, crime and suicide attempts.
The late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua ordered aides to destroy a list with the names of priests accused of sexual abuse, according to church documents revealed during the trial of Philadelphia's Monsignor William Lynn.
This Nov. 18, 2010 photo provided by the Dallas County Sheriff's Department shows John Fiala. Fiala, a former Roman Catholic priest charged with sexually abusing a teenage boy in 2008 in his rural Texas parish is now accused of plotting the alleged victim's murder, authorities said. Fiala was found guilty of the plot in May of 2012. (AP Photo/Dallas County Sheriff's Department)