Analysis: Object of Jokes and Derision, U.S. Bishops Battle to Find
Footing Hierarchy on Defense As Critics Doubt Progress on Dallas Promises

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [St. Louis]
July 4, 2003

Think of it as the Rodney Dangerfield episcopacy: The U.S. Catholic bishops can't get any respect.

Meeting at yet another tumultuous moment, and mostly behind closed doors June 19-21, the church's leaders insisted they are carrying out the promises made a year ago to remove sexual offenders from the priesthood, to investigate the causes of the crisis, and to implement programs to prevent additional abuse.

To their obvious frustration, the bishops receive little praise for their efforts. Instead, they are challenged by the press, doubted by lay activists and ridiculed by abuse victims.

Just prior to the meeting, the already embattled bishop of Phoenix, Thomas O'Brien, would be charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident. A pedestrian, 43-year-old Jim Reed, died. O'Brien reportedly told police that he thought he had hit a dog or a cat. The O'Brien incident, said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, made for a "pretty sober gathering."

That sobriety was not, however, shared by the popular culture. The bishops have become late night comic fodder.

Jay Leno: "Did you hear that Phoenix police arrested a bishop for hit and run driving? A bishop! Talk about making a collar."


David Letterman: "Bush said we're going after white-collar criminals and I'm thinking, ‘Gee I wish the Catholic church would do that.' "


Meanwhile, the man appointed by bishops' conference President Wilton Gregory to head an investigation into the crisis -- former federal prosecutor and Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating -- would compare recalcitrant bishops to members of La Cosa Nostra and then, no apology proffered, resign.

Jumping to the bishops' defense was one of the nation's leading criminal defense attorneys -- counsel to indicted congressmen, cabinet members and an impeached president.

"The National Review Board does not believe there is a criminal organization afoot," declared attorney Robert Bennett, a member of the panel established by the bishops to investigate the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Keating's mafia metaphor, said Bennett, was "inappropriate" and "beyond the pale."

Bennett's comments followed a closed session at which review board members and the bishops discussed the board's work, including a controversial diocese-by-diocese survey that California bishops said would violate that state's stringent privacy laws; in addition, other bishops feared the data would become a weapon in the arsenal of emboldened prosecutors and aggressive litigators. The reluctance of California's bishops -- most notably Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony -- to respond to the survey was the proximate cause of Keating's outburst.

The survey's response procedures were altered to ensure anonymity of the data, a move that satisfied the California concerns.

The St. Louis meeting differed from the most recent bishops' gatherings -- Dallas in June 2002 and Washington the subsequent November. In Dallas, they approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, while in Washington they refined the "norms" accompanying the charter to satisfy Vatican concerns.

The St. Louis meeting was to be relatively quiet -- the public agenda dominated by seemingly mundane matters such as development of a National Directory for Catechesis and discussion of the "formation, ministry and life of permanent deacons." The crisis would be confined to closed-door sessions at which the bishops would hear from the review board and consider a proposal to conduct the first nationwide "plenary council" in more than a century.

The O'Brien and Keating debacles necessitated a more aggressive approach, both from the floor of the meeting hall and in the press briefings and media gaggles that followed both the closed and open sessions.

"As far as I know," Cardinal George insisted, "every bishop went back [after the Dallas meeting] and went through the records, and removed from ministry anyone who was credibly accused of this. I don't know any other group that has done that. I don't know whether journalists have done that. I don't know whether politicians have done that. I don't know whether sports directors have done that."

It is "outrageous" and "totally unjust," said George, to suggest that the "bishops have done nothing."

From the floor of the assembly, St. Paul Archbishop Harry Flynn, chairman of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, echoed the theme: "A monumental effort has been made to fulfill the promises of that charter, to implement measures that would remove offending clergy, to reach out to those so terribly injured by sexual abuse, and to restore the trust and confidence of our people and our priests."

The bishops received a pep talk from Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, apostolic nuncio to the United States. "We all know that we are going through difficult times and that some real problems within the church have been magnified to discredit the moral authority of the church," said Montalvo. The bishops should not "retreat into isolation" because of the crisis, Montalvo said.

So how best to engage the crisis? The bishops spent a full day in executive session discussing the merits of a U.S. church plenary council. Such a meeting -- at which a majority of bishops could vote to enact "particular law" for the U.S. church, subject to Vatican approval -- is seen as a threat by some bishops, an opportunity by others.

The former see it as a time-consuming and costly process that will undermine the bishops' conference. "There's nothing we can do in a plenary that we can't do as a conference," said one bishop. Some supporters of the concept -- and more than 100 bishops have signed on to the idea since it was first proposed a year ago -- see it as the best means to reiterate church teaching to a floundering faithful.

The committee charged with leading the discussion on a possible plenary, chaired by Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, surveyed bishops prior to the St. Louis meeting. The areas of most concern: the identity and spiritual life of priests and bishops, the need for catechesis, the role of the laity, and concern about decline in participation "in the sacramental life of the church."

Pittsburg Archbishop Donald Wuerl addressed catechesis: "In a culture that is increasingly individualistic in its philosophical outlook and democratic in its political orientation when applied to the life of the church, the idea that there could be absolute moral truth and a God-given plan for redemption that they have not had a chance previously to approve is not always acceptable, let alone accepted."

St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali spoke on the spiritual life of priests and bishops: "Part of the Good Shepherd spirituality is being obedient to the church as Christ was obedient to the Father. This obedience recognizes, loves and serves the church in her hierarchical structure and is motivated to benefit the whole flock."

Wuerl's and Rigali's remarks were released following the closed session. The bishops will devote their next spring meeting, June 2004 in Denver, to further discussion of a plenary council.

The high-minded concepts envisioned for a plenary were quickly cast aside when, during a break in the closed-door plenary council discussion, Santa Fe, N.M., Archbishop Michael Sheehan appeared in the pressroom. Sheehan was appointed apostolic administrator of the Phoenix diocese following O'Brien's resignation.

Sheehan told reporters he would reach out to abuse victims in the same way he did when he was made bishop of the troubled Santa Fe diocese in 1993.

"I felt I needed to be like a priest and to talk to people and to assure them of the apology of the church for what's happened to them," said Sheehan. "And I felt it was better to make a mistake by being too conciliatory than by listening too much to the attorneys' point of view. So I just launched right in, and if someone said they were a victim, and I found out, I just called them or got in touch with them."

Sheehan said he expected to adhere to a controversial agreement O'Brien had reached with local prosecutors that requires the bishop to give authority to other diocesan officials when dealing with suspected abusers (NCR, June 20).

"I think the basic points in the agreement can continue to be implemented in the way that it was agreed upon," said Sheehan.

The bishops heard directly from abuse victims at their June 2002 meeting. Not this time.

Critics -- survivors, women's ordination proponents, Voice of the Faithful members, Catholic schoolteachers seeking the right to unionize -- were kept at a distance, in a park across from the hotel entrance where they could be heard if not engaged.

"We're still looked upon as adversaries of the church," said Bill Crane, a 37-year-old member of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, SNAP. One SNAP leader gave the bishops a collective "D" for their handling of abuse cases.

Voice of the Faithful executive director Steve Krueger told a news conference that the "bishops must in good faith engage and embrace serious lay Catholics who are committed to transparency, openness and reform, or risk decades more of loss of both trust and moral authority."

And what of restoring trust, of regaining respect?

To at least one bishop, it's no better back in the diocese than it is when the national spotlight shines on the assembled bishops. "If I believed everything I read about myself [in the local paper], I'd hate me too."

And that's no joke.

For earlier coverage of the bishops' meeting see the Special Sections list on the NCR Web site

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is


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