Catholic Bishop Criticizes Media
Gregory: Stories Obscured Facts in Sex Scandal

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal [Seattle WA]
Downloaded September 6, 2003

SEATTLE The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the news media yesterday for "obsessively" focusing on the clergy sexual abuse crisis but obscuring the fact that most incidents occurred decades ago.

Speaking to an audience of journalists who cover religion for secular publications, Bishop Wilton Gregory pledged that the church would "confront our past," but he chastised the media for failing to adequately report that the church began taking steps in the 1990s to curb abuse by priests. News reports also failed to put the crisis in the context of sexual abuse among other professions and in families, he said.

"I think the media coverage last year did help the church to take some steps that will wring this terrible stain out of her life to the extent that sin and crime can ever be fully eliminated," Gregory said in the keynote address to the Religion Newswriters Association, which is meeting in Seattle for its annual conference. "However, the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community."

The Catholic Church has been shaken by the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy since January 2002, when reports of cover-ups in Boston spread nationally and worldwide. The Archdiocese of Louisville reached a $25.7 million settlement with 243 plaintiffs in June over abuse cases stretching back half a century. It was the second-largest single settlement ever by an American Catholic diocese.

Gregory said yesterday that three reports on the effect of the scandal would be released over the next year:

An independent auditor will report in December on how well the nation's 195 dioceses are complying with new policies adopted by bishops in Dallas in June 2002, Gregory said. That policy barred all abusers from ministry and called for the establishment of diocesan boards to review abuse cases.

In early 2004, a National Review Board of lay members will report on the causes and context of the crisis.

Also early next year, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York will report on such questions as how much abuse occurred and what it has cost the church in legal and medical fees.

But Gregory fretted about a "communications nightmare" that will accompany these reports. One problem, he said, is that there are no comparable studies of abuse in other religions or professions, leaving little context for such reports.

"How do we engage in a serious public self-examination of our past on the issue of sexual abuse without engendering a type of sensationalistic coverage of past misconduct that obscures present achievements in eliminating that misconduct?" Gregory asked his audience. "And how do we prevent such coverage from obscuring the overall mission of the church to which millions of Catholics and thousands of priests, unsullied by this terrible infidelity, dedicate themselves?"

Gregory maintained that, through such things as better seminary screening and formal policies adopted in the early 1990s, the church has greatly reduced abuse cases.

But in a question-and-answer period, he acknowledged that not all of the news since 2002 was old.

For example, reporting in the past last year uncovered the fact that in some dioceses, bishops, but not parishioners, knew of currently active priests who'd previously abused children. And documents released in court files this year also revealed the inside language of bishops working to keep such priests in ministry while keeping such knowledge from the public.

Gregory maintained that most of those assignments were based on thorough evaluations by mental-health professionals who gave the green light to return priests to ministry reports he said bishops would find "no longer convincing" based on current information about the difficulty of curing pedophilia.

Gregory also acknowledged that the crisis has "given energy" to numerous other questions, citing a petition signed by Wisconsin priests calling for discussion of allowing married priests. In a statement Wednesday, Gregory supported the continued "requirement of celibacy for diocesan priesthood."

David Clohessy, national director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a victim advocacy group, said, "There's still far too much finger-pointing and excuse-making and not enough real soul-searching."

Church officials are pointing fingers at journalists, therapists and the abuse problem in society as a whole, said Clohessy, who is at the conference as an observer.

"To be honest, he should have come before you all and said, `Thank you from the bottom of my heart.' It's not the policies, it's not the panels, it's not the committees. It's the courageous victims and the persistent journalists that have exposed the wrongdoers and protected kids."


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