Some Bishops Resisting Sex Abuse Survey
New Lay Review Board Seeks Responses to First Comprehensive Study of Priests' Misconduct
By Alan Cooperman
June 10, 2003
After six months on the job, former FBI agent Kathleen L. McChesney is running into resistance from some of the Roman Catholic bishops who hired her to help clean up the scandal over child sexual abuse by priests.
On instructions from the bishops, McChesney and a review board of 13 lay Catholic leaders have commissioned the first comprehensive, academic study of priests who sexually abuse minors. But some bishops are hesitating to provide information for the study, citing various objections to an extensive questionnaire mailed to them in the spring.
The bishops will gather next week in St. Louis for their semiannual convention, and several have indicated they will call for changes in the questionnaire, which sought a complete accounting of every U.S. priest who has been accused of sexual misconduct with minors since 1950. That could force McChesney, the National Review Board and researchers at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice to delay or redesign the $250,000 study.
For her part, McChesney said she is confident the bishops will cooperate and declined to respond to their criticisms of her work.
That has led to very differing views of McChesney: Some lay Catholics and sexual abuse victims say she is letting the bishops ride roughshod over her. Her supporters, however, contend she is moving determinedly, if quietly, to complete her mission.
"Kathleen and the process have come under some fire from some quarters, but we think it's a minority grumble and it's more from ignorance than from spite," former Oklahoma governor Frank A. Keating, who heads the board, said yesterday.
During a 24-year FBI career, McChesney, 52, rose through the ranks to become the bureau's third-highest official and the top-ranking woman in its history. She left the FBI in December to become the first director of the newly created Office for Child and Youth Protection under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. With a two-person staff and $1 million-a-year budget, she is charged with preventing child sexual abuse in 195 dioceses with more than 47,000 priests and 63 million parishioners across the country.
She appears, in many ways, a natural fit for her new position: Raised in a traditional Catholic family in Seattle, she grew up regularly attending Mass, forgoing meat on Fridays and wearing a veil to church. After attending Gonzaga University, a Jesuit university in Spokane, and graduating from Washington State University, she worked as a sheriff's deputy. Seven years later she joined the FBI as one of its first female agents.
While some may view the church's hiring of a senior FBI official as a what-is-this-world-coming-to moment, McChesney described it as a melding of two cultures with much in common. "The core values of the FBI really mesh with religious values: integrity, telling the truth, things like that," she said.
Even some of McChesney's admirers fear, however, that she is doomed to failure by an inadequate budget and a precarious perch in the church's bureaucracy. While she is often described as a watchdog over the bishops, she also works for them. Her base, the national bishops' conference, has no real power over its individual members, each of whom answers only to the pope.
"She has the problems that compliance officers always have: too few resources and too many expectations," said Jim Post, a professor of management at Boston University and president of the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful, who counts himself among her ardent supporters.
Under media scrutiny at a meeting a year ago in Dallas, the bishops committed themselves to a "zero tolerance" policy, promising the permanent removal from ministry of any priest who is found to have abused a child. They also established McChesney's position and the review board and asked them to carry out two studies, one on the "scope and nature" of sexual abuse in the church and the other on its "causes and context."
According to members of the review board, about a third of the 195 dioceses have not returned the questionnaires for the first study. It is unclear how many are balking, since some bishops may still be compiling their responses. But some have expressed concerns that the survey could lead to more lawsuits or reveal the names of priests who faced unsubstantiated allegations.
Among the objectors is Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who is considered to be a possible successor to Cardinal Bernard M. Law as archbishop of Boston. In an interview last month with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wuerl called for rewording the questionnaire to allow more explanation -- so that it would ask, for example, not just whether an abusive priest was transferred to a new parish, but whether he received psychological treatment before the transfer.
Keating said the review board's position is that the questionnaire -- which has not been made public -- is "highly professional" and cannot be reworded, because that would entail sending out new forms to all the dioceses that have already responded.
The dispute over the questionnaire is only the latest sign that not all of the bishops are supportive of McChesney and the board's efforts. In January, on their first official visit to the archdiocese of New York, McChesney and the board got a chilly reception from Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who declined to celebrate Mass for them and denied them permission to attend a Knights of Columbus dinner.
The most direct attack on McChesney came in April from Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, after she accepted an invitation to speak to the New Jersey chapter of Voice of the Faithful. The national organization calls for "structural change" in the church, and Myers has banned it from meeting on church property in his archdiocese.
"I can only say that her decisions and the conduct of her office leave more than a few Bishops for whom she technically works in a state of perplexity," Myers wrote in a letter to a parishioner, who made it public.
McChesney, who has a newspaper clipping about Myers's comment pinned above her desk, declined to comment on it directly. But she said she has been speaking to a wide variety of Catholic groups as she travels around the country.
A large part of McChesney's job, such as helping dioceses train their personnel to identify and report signs of sexual abuse, is uncontroversial. But victims groups see the debate over the questionnaire as a bellwether for the review board's ability to hold the bishops to their promises.
"They're asking the bishops for the data, and they're not going to get it," predicted Paul Baier, a Boston high-tech entrepreneur and founder of SurvivorsFirst, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse.
"You've already seen the power play. They went to New York and Egan didn't meet with them, and [Bishops' Conference President Wilton D.] Gregory didn't stand up for them," Baier said. "So the bishops know that at best this is a minor PR project, it's a Band-Aid, and neither Gregory nor the Vatican is going to make them cooperate."
Post, of Voice of the Faithful, disagreed. He said McChesney is quietly pursuing her agenda and seeking to play down any conflict with the bishops for a simple reason: "Her most important resource is the confidence of the bishops."
In an interview before she left the FBI in December, McChesney alluded to the possibility that a few bishops might not want to uncover the full history of sexual abuse in their dioceses.
"Whether individuals want to know or not, the bottom line is the bishops recommended the study. . . . They've got that in the [Dallas] charter, and that speaks volumes. It tells you that the majority of bishops believe that this is the time to do this, and I'm there to make sure it gets done -- and I will."
But in a follow-up conversation in May, after resistance from bishops had become apparent, McChesney made clear that they -- not she and the review board -- are responsible for the completeness of the studies.
Asked whether, at the end of day, the public will know the full number of priests accused of abuse, she replied: "We'll know the full numbers that are provided by the bishops."
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