Bishops Refocusing on Sex Abuse Scandal

By Rachel Zoll
Associated Press [Washington DC]
November 11, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are refocusing their attention on the clergy sex abuse scandal even though they had planned for it to be just a small part of their fall meeting.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the four-day assembly Monday by saying the "energy of the whole church" should be directed toward reaching out to abuse victims and rebuilding unity among Catholics divided by the crisis.

On Tuesday afternoon, a watchdog panel, composed of laymen selected by the bishops last year at the height of the molestation crisis, will report on the progress that dioceses are making toward protecting children in the church.

The National Review Board is monitoring how bishops are implementing their new mandatory discipline policy for guilty priests and is overseeing an unprecedented diocese-by-diocese count of abuse cases over the last 50 years. That report is expected to be released in February.

The bishops plan votes on a wide range of other issues - from proper religious observance to the plight of farmers. On Tuesday morning, they will discuss a proposed statement on same-sex unions.

In his speech, Gregory said too many victims "have experienced that some of us did not act like good shepherds when they came to us" and the bishops have a responsibility to reconcile with them.

"I'm impressed that he mentioned the whole sexual abuse thing here," said Luise Dittrich of the Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group. "I had been saying, `They'll do the minimum,' but he didn't. If he meant what he said, that's a great thing."

Gregory, of Belleville, Ill., said his fellow prelates need to "reflect on our own need to accept just criticism" and realize that what they do in their own dioceses affects every church leader.

He also said bishops should find ways "to foster and to nurture successful participation and dialogue" with priests and lay people to recover from the nearly two-year-long crisis.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed Gregory's remarks, but said he questioned whether bishops would follow through and work more closely with victims.

"There's only one way we'll know how to judge them and that is on their actions," said Clohessy, who helped organized a protest vigil outside the bishops' meeting.

Some bishops objected Monday when Kathleen McChesney, head of the conference's Office of Child and Youth Protection, which was formed last year, asked for about $260,000 to hire additional staff.

The prelates said they had been forced to cut spending in their own dioceses and the bishops' conference should do the same. Other bishops responded that the abuse issue was too important to argue over funding.

McChesney's request was approved on a voice vote, bringing her office's annual budget to about $1 million.


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