Under Church's Reform Plan a Few Bishops Lead Change

USA Today
Downloaded November 21, 2003

When the Roman Catholic diocese of Metuchen, N.J., needed someone to head its investigations of sexual abuse by priests, Bishop Paul Bootkoski hired the most aggressive person he could find: the former head of a local sex crimes unit. Bootkoski also settled 10 sexual abuse lawsuits, even though several victims had little chance of winning in court because of a legal technicality. And he reached out to victims with phone calls, personal meetings and apologies.

Two years after the Catholic Church was rocked by revelations that pedophile priests had preyed on children while bishops hid the wrongdoing, the fact that Bootkoski's actions stand out as exceptional shows the peril and the promise the church now faces.

As a national board chosen by bishops prepares to report in January on the progress of a get-tough policy on abuse, Bootkoski's forthright approach is hardly the rule.Further, the head of the panel said last week that as of mid-September 24% of the nation's 195 dioceses had not turned over data about past abuse for a second report.

The lag comes after a June deadline was extended to today. And it follows the resignation of the panel's first chairman, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, after he accused bishops of stonewalling.

The survey is supposed to be the church's first full accounting of the extent of child abuse by priests. Resistance to it and other reforms bishops adopted in June 2002 hampers efforts by the church to regain trust. Just as damaging, it masks signs of progress.

Bootkoski's actions have won him hero status among abuse victims, but other bishops also have embraced strategies that meet or go beyond the reform plan. They feature:

• Openness. This month, the Washington Archdiocese disclosed that 26 of its priests have been accused of child sexual abuse in the past 56 years, at a cost to the church of $4.3 million for victim compensation and other expenses. Last year, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, disclosed on the Internet decades of child abuse and the names of more than 50 clergymen accused of preying on minors. The report exceeded the reform policy's disclosure requirements.

•Compassion.In Providence, Bishop Robert Mulvee has held 10 meetings with abuse victims, according to news accounts. In Boston, an $85 million settlement with 552 victims last September included medical counseling paid for by the church.

•Reform. Bootkoski has gone the furthest in combating sexual abuse. Besides hiring a tough investigator, the bishop has named a member of a victims group critical of the church to a lay board that will review future abuse accusations.

Illinois Appeals Court Judge Anne Burke, head of the church's review panel, says cooperation is increasing and she is confident all dioceses will meet today's deadline for turning over past abuse data.

Still, victims and other critics say many dioceses still resist tough steps to come clean about the past and prevent new abuses.

While their assessment is correct too often, glimpses of change are apparent. In Boston, Archbishop Sean O'Malley met Wednesday with Voice of the Faithful, a group of critics banned from using church facilities in numerous dioceses. A few bishops have named strong lay boards or are moving away from hardball legal tactics.

The key is for more church leaders to go beyond what's required, as some have done. By following their example, the church has greater hope of winning back the trust squandered in the sexual abuse scandal.


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