Leader Praises Catholic Bishops
But Gregory Says They Still Must Reconcile with Abuse Victims

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post [Washington DC]
November 11, 2003

The leader of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops commended his peers yesterday for their "solid steps" to prevent future abuse of children by priests, but he said they still have an "urgent obligation" to seek reconciliation with past victims and to pray that they can "forgive us" for what happened to them.

"I understand that this is not something that will always be sought immediately by those who have been harmed, nor will it be easy for any of us," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But "if the scourge of sexual abuse is to be effectively eliminated, then the energy of the whole church needs to be directed to this end."

Gregory's remarks came on the first day of the bishops' semiannual meeting at a Capitol Hill hotel.

Gregory, bishop of Belleville, Ill., became conference president in late 2001, just before the child abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston with revelations that for years, its bishops had reassigned priests known to be pedophiles.

The scandal quickly spread to dioceses across the country, prompting the bishops last year to adopt their strictest-ever policies on disciplining guilty priests. But the bishops' response to the scandal is still a contentious matter among some Catholics.

"As is usually the case, [Gregory's] words sound good. It's the follow-through that consistently seems to be lacking," said David Clohessy, national director the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims' advocacy group. "I hope his brother bishops follow his advice and will listen to survivors. But it's hard to be optimistic that his words will make a difference."

Clohessy was among a dozen people attending a protest vigil outside the bishops' meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Holding signs that said "No More Suicides," the vigil recalled abuse victims who had killed themselves.

The bishops will hear an interim report today from the National Review Board, a lay group set up by the bishops to monitor their compliance with the new child-protection polices. The board will issue two key reports early next year.

The first, in January, is a national audit of the country's 195 dioceses, documenting how well each has implemented the new policies. The second, in February, will offer an aggregate picture of the scope of the scandal based on 50 years of data provided by each diocese, including financial costs and the number of priests who molested children. That survey, being compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, will not give specifics of the scandal in each diocese.

Gregory said the reports will be "a measure of how well" the bishops have fulfilled promises to protect children. His hope, he added, is that "other institutions in our society that have responsibility for children will replicate these efforts."

Some Catholics called yesterday for fuller disclosure of the information being gathered.

"There is too much secrecy in this audit process," said Evelyn Mercantini of Reston, a coordinator of the Northern Virginia chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a national lay organization formed after the scandal to promote transparency in church decision making. "We want the results and we want them diocese by diocese."

The agenda for the four-day gathering also includes discussion on how to reform the U.S. agriculture industry to be more equitable, new guidelines for popular devotions such as the rosary and pilgrimages, and new rules on Sunday services in parishes without resident priests.

The bishops will also decide whether to draft a new document urging Catholics to obey the church ban on artificial contraception and vote on a statement dealing with same-sex unions.

In a discussion of spending priorities for 2004, one bishop cited budget problems to question the funding of three new assistants for Kathleen L. McChesney, head of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which is conducting the national audit.

The positions were approved after the coadjutor bishop of Dallas, Joseph A. Galante, chastised the bishops for a "lack of institutional memory" and reminded them that the abuse scandal "continues to be for us a challenge.


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