Gregory Faults Reporting on Scandal
Not Enough Credit Given for Sex Abuse Policies, Says Conference Head

By Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service [Seattle]
September 19, 2003

The nation’s top Roman Catholic bishop sharply criticized the media for “saturation coverage” of the church’s sex abuse crisis that resulted in “unnecessary damage” to church leaders.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, faulted reporters for only “minimal attempts” to investigate sexual abuse in other institutions and “linking sexual abuse solely to Catholic clerics.”

“The way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community,” Gregory told the Religion Newswriters Association Sept. 5.

Gregory, the bishop of Belleville, Ill., said bishops had not been given enough credit for sexual abuse policies that were implemented before the scandal erupted 18 months ago.

Ten years ago, the bishops approved “guidelines” on handling abusive priests, but Gregory conceded many dioceses -- including Boston, the scandal’s epicenter -- did not adequately implement them.

Under new rules adopted in June 2002, the bishops established lay review boards and promised to remove from public ministry any priest who had abused a minor. The Vatican later made changes that detailed an accused priest’s legal rights.

“In an investigative zeal to discover how past cases were handled, too often fundamental follow-up questions about ... whether Catholic children were safer in 2002 from abuse by clergy than they were 10 years earlier were not asked,” Gregory said.

The result, he said, is that many people think “that sexual abuse of children in our society could be eliminated by eliminating Catholic priest abusers.”

Gregory, who has enjoyed mostly smooth relations with the media despite intense scrutiny over the scandal, said, “If society has any hope of eliminating this terrible exploitation of our youth, then we also have to face up to this scourge as it exists in the family, in school systems, and in all forms of professional and volunteer work with young people.”

Gregory said he was referring to the media “in shorthand” and said “clearly not all media deserve criticism.”

Abuse victims and church reformers who listened to Gregory’s speech, however, faulted him for shifting blame for the crisis away from bishops, some of whom knowingly transferred abusive priests despite reports from victims.

“The church would have been better served by some deeper soul-searching and reflection rather than finger-pointing and excuse-making,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Lay reformers, too, said the church had been helped, not hurt, by media coverage of the sex scandal.

“As part of the church, as part of the people of God, I say the media have been helpful to get the word out from behind closed doors,” said Eileen Knoff, the Seattle regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based lay movement of 30,000 members. “We need transparency.”

Gregory pointed to three major reports in the coming months that will help shed light on the scandal’s roots. A national audit to measure which dioceses are complying with the bishops’ new policies is expected by December.

Then, early next year, a national lay review board will issue a preliminary report on the causes of the scandal. Researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will also release a report that will seek to tabulate for the first time the numbers of victims and alleged abusers.

Gregory said this data was never collected before because “there is no ‘American Catholic church’ ” and the 195 dioceses “do not have an obligation to report almost anything to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.”


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