The G Woman's Act of Faith

By Jeff Glasser
U.S. News
September 1, 2003

The mythological hero Ulysses had to chart a perilous course between Scylla, the six-headed creature that destroyed some of his sailors, and Charybdis, the force that sought to swallow the rest of them in a whirlpool. Former FBI executive Kathleen McChesney, who is charged with overseeing the Roman Catholic Church's response to the priest-abuse scandal, is caught in a similar predicament. On one side, victims' rights advocates question her independence from the American bishops for whom she works. On the other, conservative bishops are concerned that McChesney will be sucked into supporting reformist views held by some members of dissident groups with whom she has met. McChesney's success may hinge in part on her ability to navigate the deep divides in today's church. But if the task seems daunting, McChesney isn't showing it. She shrugs when asked about all the controversy. "To me," she says, "the abuse is the important thing."

Dealing with the challenges of mostly male cultures isn't new for McChesney. A native of Auburn, Wash., a Seattle suburb, McChesney, 52, grew up with one brother in a traditional Irish-Italian family that avoided eating meat on Fridays and faithfully attended mass at Holy Family parish. She first became interested in police work as the result of conversations with a friend in Seattle law enforcement. In the early 1970s, as the first female patrol officer in Washington State, McChesney faced a frosty reception from old-timers in the King County Sheriff's Department who thought policewomen should be matrons, says Robert Keppel, her training officer. She also had to live with equipment designed for men. When McChesney drove the squad car, the 5-foot, 2-inch rookie had to pull the front bench seat all the way forward and down, which meant her partner couldn't get out or pick up a shotgun from the rack. Once, while responding to a burglary in progress, McChesney jumped out of the car and forgot to move the seat back. Keppel had to lie down to exit. "She was so short, witnesses would talk right over her head to me," says the 6-foot-1 Keppel. "I'd say, `You need to speak to this officer here,' " and he would point at McChesney. But Keppel was impressed with the thoroughness of his partner's work, and he later recruited her as a detective to join the task force investigating serial killer Ted Bundy. McChesney's specialty was gathering information from girlfriends and other women who knew Bundy prior to his arrest. "She overcame a lot of hurdles," says Keppel, "especially me yelling at her."

McChesney continued investigating sex crimes and homicides in the 1970s and became intrigued with finding more sensitive ways to deal with emotionally and psychologically devastated victims. She also got involved in efforts to train police officers and hospital workers to improve evidence-gathering after a victim had been assaulted. Not surprisingly, McChesney sees parallels with her work today. "You have large numbers of church personnel, including bishops, who have to deal with victims and their families," she says, "and they are in need of the same sorts of information and education as to how to deal with people who have been traumatized."

McChesney would have risen quickly to top management in the Sheriff's Department, says Keppel, but she had her sights set higher. In 1978, she joined the San Francisco office of the FBI, beginning a peripatetic career that would take her to bureau offices in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Among other cases, McChesney helped to track the nation's most wanted bank robber, investigated police officers in the Rodney King assault case, and busted local officials corrupted by mob influence in suburban Chicago. Running the sprawling Chicago field office often forced McChesney to put in seven-day weeks. She played a round of golf now and then and joined an occasional office barbecue, but McChesney, who remained single, was mostly married to the job. Walter Stowe, her deputy in Chicago, recalls her phoning around 2 a.m. to let him know investigators had found the body of Hillary Johnson, a missing University of Memphis student from Chicago. McChesney and Stowe immediately drove to the home of Johnson's parents and delivered the bad news. McChesney also attended Johnson's funeral. "She was incredibly compassionate in dealing with us," says Nancy McPike, Johnson's mother.

While in Chicago, McChesney belonged to the Chicago Network, a group of leading professional women. Through the organization she befriended Anne Burke, an Illinois appeals court justice and member of the Catholic National Review Board. It was Burke who recruited McChesney last year to run the new Office for Child and Youth Protection under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The highest-ranking woman in the FBI, McChesney decided to leave the bureau because she thought she could help restore confidence in the church among the nation's 64 million Catholics. "People were becoming afraid of relationships between young people and members of the clergy," says McChesney. "While the numbers that have been available will tell you that it's been a very small percentage of priests and deacons who offend, it doesn't matter. Any case is tragic and wrong and has enormous impact on parishioners and their families." McChesney's task is threefold: produce by early 2004 a study and report on the extent of abuse in the United States Catholic Church, oversee audits of each of the 195 American dioceses, and train clergy how to respond to allegations.

Her first months on the job haven't gone all smoothly. This spring, Newark, N.J., Archbishop John Myers criticized McChesney for meeting with the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful. Some members and people who have spoken to the group--including St. Peters College Prof. Eileen Flynn--have advocated allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained, critics say. Church conservatives' suspicions were further raised when they saw that McChesney had given a book jacket endorsement for Catholics at a Crossroads, Flynn's new book. McChesney's blurb merely applauded Flynn for supporting greater lay involvement in church affairs, but conservatives say someone in McChesney's position should not give the appearance of allying with Flynn. "McChesney doesn't have theocratic credentials," says Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine. "That's not her expertise." McChesney says she will meet with any group that wants to address the problem. As for Hudson's criticism, she says, "That'd be like saying I can't give an opinion on a car because I'm not a mechanic."

One of the more controversial tasks facing McChesney is persuading each of the 195 dioceses to fill out a detailed survey on the amount of abuse in the church going back 50 years. Some of the bishops initially balked at filling out the survey, citing privacy concerns. In June, Frank Keating, then chairman of the National Review Board, resigned after telling the Los Angeles Times that some bishops were behaving like "La Cosa Nostra." McChesney worked behind the scenes to smooth over bishops' misgivings. She now expects almost all of the dioceses to complete the survey; more than two thirds have already turned in their material. Frank Fitzpatrick, a victim of convicted priest James Porter in Fall River, Mass., says it's "a joke" to expect that the dioceses will turn over complete and accurate information. Since McChesney works for the American bishops, he says, she has a vested interest in downplaying the extent of the abuse. But those who have known McChesney aren't betting against her. Over the course of her law enforcement career, McChesney was known for staying calm but getting what she wanted. "She doesn't play games. She's direct," says William Burleigh, chairman of E. W. Scripps Co. and a member of the National Review Board. Stowe, McChesney's deputy in Chicago, says bishops are in for a shock if they thought McChesney's assignment was window dressing. People will be surprised at how accurate an accounting of priest abuse she delivers, he says, because McChesney will "steamroll" bishops who don't comply. "They won't know what hit them."

Born: Nov. 20, 1950. Family: Single. Education: B.A., police science, Washington State, 1971; master's, public administration, Seattle University; Ph.D., public administration, Golden Gate University. Public service: King County Sheriff's Dept., 1971-78; FBI, 1978-2002; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office for Child and Youth Protection, 2002-present.

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