Catholic Bishops Wary of Oversight Board Report on Sex Abuse

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Washington DC]
November 12, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The nation's Catholic bishops yesterday were warned that any attempt to control the work of a review board appointed to oversee their efforts to protect children from predatory priests would only diminish the church's credibility.

"In adopting this posture, we hope we are not seen by you as hostile or untrustworthy," said Cincinnati newspaper executive William Burleigh, a member of the National Review Board. "Nothing could be further from the truth. As a board we are united by our love for the church and a burning desire to see that her wounds are healed."

The National Conference of Bishops is holding its annual fall meeting here this week.

In January and February the National Review Board is slated to release three reports that clearly make some bishops anxious. The first, due Jan. 6, explains how each diocese fared in an audit of its compliance with the charter to protect children and youth that the bishops adopted in June 2002.

But the study that has the bishops most on edge is a survey by criminologists at John Jay College of all known allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the past 50 years. Bishops have expressed concern that false accusations would be lumped in with real ones, that no distinction would be made between sex crimes and conduct that was inappropriate but not illegal, and that the responses of 50 years ago would be judged by the standards of today.

That study, along with a preliminary analysis of the causes and context of the abuse, based on interviews that the review board conducted with bishops, victims and offenders, will be released Feb. 27.

Anne Burke, an Illinois appellate court judge who is interim chair of the review board, praised the bishops' cooperation, saying that 82 percent of 195 dioceses had completed their surveys by mid-September.

While Burke took a "glass 82-percent full" approach, the leader of a national survivors group asked why nearly 20 percent of bishops had not responded to the mandated study.

Noting that many bishops seemed "very defensive," David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the review board "is extremely well-intentioned."

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh had expressed concerns months ago about whether the John Jay survey questions were nuanced enough to elicit an accurate picture. Allegations can range from rape to touching a fully clothed teenager in a manner that is suggestive but not illegal, Wuerl said. And until the 1990s, even top researchers on sexual abuse of minors had not identified it as a compulsive behavior that does not respond well to counseling.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, chair of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, cited several more projects in the pipeline. Grants are being sought for a much deeper scientific study, costing an estimated $4 million, of the causes and context of the abuse. The committee is looking into the possibility of creating a national databank of priests who were known offenders.

Tomorrow, he said, his committee plans to release "a guide for bishops on best practices in pastoral care of victim-survivors."

In a deeply spiritual address Monday, conference president Bishop Wilton Gregory spoke of the sacred obligation that bishops have to treat all church members as someone in whom Christ dwells -- whether they like the person or not. In the wake of the sex abuse scandal, he urged the bishops to apply that teaching to both sexual abuse victims and one another.

He noted that many victims have been so deeply hurt, and so betrayed by bishops in the past, that they may not welcome attempts at reconciliation.

"That, however, does not release us from our responsibility to continue to seek reconciliation with them," he said.

He urged the bishops to press forward with reforms that are intended to prevent future sexual abuse, and not to become divided.

The commitment of some bishops to the child and youth protection reforms was quickly called into question by a budget debate over additional staff for the Office of Child and Youth Protection, which oversees programs aimed at ending sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI agent who runs the office, asked for a budget increase to hire more staff.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago raised a concern about creeping bureaucracy, asking whether the national office was taking permanent responsibility for work that might eventually be better handled by individual dioceses.

Several bishops then rose to urge support of Mc-Chesney's office.

"This is the most serious pastoral crisis that has ever been faced in this country. To not give the director what she believes she needs would be, in my judgment, a mistake of enormous pastoral proportions," said Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.

"It's almost like our institutional memory has been lost," said Bishop Joseph Galante, the coadjutor of Dallas, who was sent there after one of the nation's worst clergy sex scandals in the 1990s. "It gives a very bad message to say well, now things have quieted down so we don't have to look at this anymore."

The 230 bishops voted to fund all three new positions, with only one dissent on the full-time position and a handful on the two part-time consultants.

Afterward, Galante said that the vote count showed the true commitment of the bishops.

"The body of bishops is not wavering. Those were overwhelmingly positive votes given to the Office of Child and Youth Protection," he said.


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