Bishops Tackle Clergy Abuse

By Matt Stearns
Centre Daily Times [Washington DC]
November 11, 2003

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - Roman Catholic bishops are debating issues from world peace to world agriculture this week, but overshadowing those and every other topic is sex.

At the four-day meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops here, church leaders heard an update on the ongoing investigation of the sexual abuse scandal in the priesthood that scandalized the church. They also may issue guidelines condemning same-sex unions for gay couples, an increasingly divisive political issue.

Both topics aroused spirited discussion Tuesday among the bishops, meeting in a basement conference room of a Capitol Hill hotel, and inspired protesters from several interest groups, who held vigils outside the hotel and unobtrusively distributed information in the lobby.

In the aftermath of the widespread sexual abuse scandal, the bishops' conference in 2002 promised a rigorous self-examination, including the creation of a national review board of lay people to monitor efforts to prevent abuse and protect children.

"We're not at the finish line yet, but we've certainly made significant progress," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the bishops conference. "Our people are beginning to understand our bishops are serious about this."

The most significant sign yet of the church's seriousness will come in the form of three reports to be issued early next year. One, to be issued in January, will be an audit of how the 195 Catholic dioceses across the country have implemented the charter on child protection adopted by the bishops last year.

And on Feb. 27 will come the mother lode: One report, by the National Review Board, on the causes and context of the crisis, and a report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice cataloging sexual abuse cases since 1950.

Anne M. Burke, the Illinois judge who leads the review board, told the bishops in a briefing Tuesday that about 80 percent of the nation's dioceses had completed surveys that the reports will be based on. Later, Burke said she expected all to do so by the Nov. 21 deadline.

The findings thus far of the John Jay report are a closely guarded secret, but few punches are expected to be pulled.

"This is going to be devastating, from what I'm hearing on the inside," said Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. "People will look at these raw statistics and say, `This is a large number.' But I'm hoping we can say, `OK, if they're large and damning in many ways, how do they compare to the country at large?"'

Some bishops at the meeting Tuesday expressed concern about the way the scandal is being handled. One questioned whether the media could be trusted to give a fair accounting when the reports are issued. Another said he was concerned that bishops were expected to act as proxies for police and prosecutors in dealing with their priests.

A third said the best context in which to place the scandal is to stress that most priests serve honorably and well. Others asked why so many lawyers were involved with the review board's work and whether there was proof that financial settlements helped relieve victims' suffering.

Church critics say they are not sold yet on the church's willingness to be open and honest about the scandal. David Clohessy, spokesman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said comments like the ones some bishops made did not inspire optimism.

"They're still pretty defensive," Clohessy said. "Ultimately, (the review board) has to rely on the cooperation of the bishops. If the bishops are still acting and feeling defensive, it means the review board has even more of an uphill fight."

At a Tuesday press conference, SNAP said several priests accused of sexual abuse remained in ministry, a sign of church "foot-dragging, hair-splitting and excuse-making," Clohessy said.

"The church is safer now than it was a year ago," Clohessy said. "But it's not as safe as they'd have us believe or as safe as it could be."

Burke said she was not familiar with the incidents cited by SNAP.

Earlier Tuesday, a bishops committee recommended that the church issue guidelines condemning same-sex unions because homosexual acts are considered sinful and because the church defines marriage as occurring between a man and a woman.

"Already, one state in our nation has established the category of civil union and, for the purpose of rights and benefits, has recognized it as the equivalent of marriage for homosexual persons," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga., who led the committee (and is Raymond Boland's brother).

Bishops are expected to vote on the recommended guidelines before the meeting ends Thursday.

That issue also drew several critics from Soulforce, a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics and their friends and family. They say the church is blurring the lines separating church and state by lobbying for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

"Believe what you want to believe," said Mel White, Soulforce's executive director. "But don't use your political muscle to try to make law out of bad religion."

Gregory denied that accusation, saying the church was just part of a coalition of many religious and nonreligious groups opposed to same-sex unions.

"We are not so much pushing the religious tenets of Catholicism as the societal concerns that touch the lives of many people well beyond our own local churches," Gregory said.


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