Lay Board Discovers That Auditing Bishops Can Be Dicey

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun-Times
Downloaded August 9, 2003

The national lay review board that the Catholic bishops established last year has one overarching goal: It must convince Catholics that their children are safe on church premises. The bishops no longer can do that because they have lost their credibility on the subject. Two different strategies might have shaped the selection of the board.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the National Conference of Catholic bishops, might have chosen lay people whom the bishops could trust--the kind of men and women who would reach conclusions that the bishops would like and be docile and humble in their dealings with the hierarchy. The only trouble with this strategy is that such a board could not re-establish the credibility of the church leadership on sexual abuse and hence its existence would serve no purpose--save perhaps stalling for time.

The other strategy demanded that Gregory appoint men and women who were well-known as devout Catholics but also as persons of independence and honesty. The only trouble with that strategy is that the board would almost certainly offend some bishops. They in turn would point out that the board had no canonical or civil authority to supervise bishops. As a result, there would be grim head-shaking in the Roman curia.

Gregory, who had dealt effectively with a serious abuse crisis when he arrived in Downstate Belleville, chose the latter strategy, though it would certainly put his career in jeopardy, especially among those imperial hierarchs who didn't think the crisis was real anyway. The board met in Chicago last week and issued an interim report to the "Catholic Faithful of the United States." It described the establishment of an "Office for Child and Youth Protection" whose first task was to do an audit of the efforts of all the dioceses to implement the processes established at the Dallas meeting a year ago. A group of "auditors"--mostly former FBI personnel--is fanning out across the country to determine the extent to which each diocese is adhering to the practices established at the Dallas meeting.

The auditors have encountered mixed reactions. Some of the bishops were insolent and some cooperative. So far, the auditors have visited 31 dioceses (including Chicago, which, one hears, received high marks) and will have completed their work in early fall. Dioceses that do not cooperate will be listed in a report by the end of the year, as will evaluations of the effectiveness of procedures in all dioceses.

This is inevitably a painful experience for bishops who are not accustomed to such scrutiny. However, some of them might understand that the scrutiny is essential to convince the laity that their children are safe.

A second project might be called a census--a diocese-by-diocese survey of the number and costs of sex abuse cases, a process that is essential to establish just how many priests abused children and young people. The bishops might lie on the survey (conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice). But if they do, they could be caught lying. About two-thirds of the dioceses have returned at least parts of the survey.

Finally, on the basis of the audit and survey and their own hearings around the country, the board will produce a report about the possibility of another one of their challenges from the Dallas meeting: a study of the causes of sexual abuse of the young. This study will be of enormous importance to the church and indeed to all organizations whose personnel deal with young people.

All of these projects are very serious business. They deserve to be treated with responsiveness and respect.

The review board has encountered cooperation, but, one hears, some harassment and hassling of the sort that canon and civil lawyers will create unless their bishop stops them. One also hears that the board may be expanded to include members who are more sympathetic to the bishops and a new chairman willing to compromise with some of the great potentate bishops.

Can the work of the review board be frustrated? Of course it can, but the costs would be prohibitive. The remaining credibility of the Catholic bishops as moral leaders would be swept into the trash can of history.


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