Almost Business As Usual at Bishop's Meeting
Gregory Says Church Has Turned Corner on Sex Abuse Crisis

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington]
November 21, 2003

The church is regaining the trust of Catholics in the pews, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Wilton Gregory contended at the group's semiannual meeting. Nearly two years after allegations of serial sexual abuse and high-level hierarchical cover-ups rocked the Boston archdiocese and brought the issue of clerical exploitation of minors back into the national spotlight, the church has “turned the corner,” said Gregory, though it has not yet “crossed the finish line.”

A major bump in the road comes early next year when the review board charged by the bishops with investigating the scandal releases a series of reports on the crisis. The results of an audit of each diocese's anti-child abuse programs will be publicly available Jan. 7, followed late the following month by the release of two additional reports describing the scope and causes of the crisis.

But even with those clouds on the horizon, the nearly 300 bishops gathered for the Nov. 10-12 meeting acted like a group no longer completely encumbered by scandal. They didn't shy away from issues of sexual morality, calling for the production of easy-to-read brochures promoting church teaching on marriage -- the bishops are against efforts to equate "civil unions” or "gay marriage” with traditional matrimony -- and birth control. And in approving statements and policies on such issues as agriculture policy, popular devotions and Sunday services in the absence of a priest, they dealt with a range of non-scandal-related questions of interest both to the wider society and internal church constituents.

The bishops were able to conduct business in a way that was impossible at their previous three meetings. Their June 2002 gathering in Dallas was dominated by their development of their Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, the collective body of bishops' first concrete response to the scandals.

The November 2002 Washington gathering was overshadowed by Vatican-inspired revisions to the procedures needed to enforce that charter, while the June 2003 meeting followed the headline-grabbing resignation of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating from the review board established to investigate the abuse scandals. Keating, a former federal prosecutor, charged that some bishops responded to the crisis in a Mafia-like fashion -- engaging in cover-ups and strong-arm tactics designed to minimize disclosure.

One sign of crisis fatigue: More than 800 journalists were accredited to the June 2002 Dallas meeting, while fewer than 130 attended the most recent gathering.

Gregory told a Nov. 11 news conference that the bishops' response to the crisis -- passage of the charter, independent audits of diocesan compliance with policies designed to protect children, establishment of the lay review board, and the removal of hundreds of alleged abusers from active ministry -- has had a positive effect. The numbers lend some support to Gregory's claim. Forty-nine percent of Catholics recently surveyed by Gallup said the bishops were doing a good job of responding to the scandals, up from 35 percent who said so last year.

Still, the sexual abuse issue hangs over the bishops. Members of the review board updated the bishops on the studies they will release and abuse victims charged that more than a dozen abusive priests remain active. Meanwhile, the specter of the crisis emerged at some unexpected moments -- such as the consideration of routine amendments to the bishops' conference budget.

Up for discussion Nov. 10 was a $265,000 budget "exception" to fund an additional secretary and two consultants within the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. Chicago Cardinal Francis George, citing the budgetary constraints the conference faces, suggested the work could be conducted at the diocesan level. The discussion soon became a referendum not on George's recommendation, but on the perception that would be created by rejecting funds for child-protection positions that had been previously authorized, if not yet appropriated, by the body of bishops.

Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., questioned whether the bishops should add additional personnel to the child protection effort while other departments within the bishop's bureaucracy face cutbacks.

"Can't we complete the job without the consultants?" asked Erie, Pa., Bishop Donald Trautman.

Their sensitivities sparked, a series of bishops arose to defend the proposed staffing.

Crisis-fixer Michael Sheehan -- archbishop of the once-scandal-ridden Santa Fe, N.M., diocese now doing double duty as the acting bishop of Phoenix -- said it would be a mistake for the bishops to deny the funds. "This is one of the most serious crises the church in the United States has ever faced," said Sheehan, and it would be "very unwise not to give to this office the funding that it needs."

One-time Boston auxiliary John D'Arcy, now bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., told the body, "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 … a mistake of enormous pastoral proportions."

Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante of the scandal-plagued Dallas diocese, said, "It's almost like our institutional memory has been lost. We still need the time and the efforts and the energy to recover, to reassure and to bring healing to our people. And I think it would give a very bad message to say that now things have quieted down and we don't have to look at this anymore."

The bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating the new positions.

The budget debate was a reminder that no actions the bishops take, no change of subject or public relations plan, will wipe away the scandals. Another reminder: The same poll that found increased support for the bishops' handling of the crisis also found that only 38 percent found the bishops "accountable" in their handling of church funds, down from 45 percent last year.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is


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