The Bishops' Abuse Report: Looking around the Bend

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter
January 7, 2003

Editor's Note: Today, NCR Washington correspondent, Joe Feuerdherd, begins a weekly Web column. Washington Notebook will be posted every Wednesday at

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) news conference was advertised to take place in the "ballroom" of Capitol Hill's Phoenix Park Hotel. The cramped quarters suggested otherwise.

"If the bishops can call what they are putting out an 'audit,'" quipped one of the organizers, "then we can call this a 'ballroom.'"

The audit referenced was, of course, the telephone-book-thick report detailing diocesan compliance, or lack thereof, with the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth. Fifty-four investigators (many of them former FBI gumshoes) visited 191 dioceses over six months. By and large, they liked what they found: 90 percent of the dioceses are doing a good job implementing their child protection programs, said the report.

SNAP wasn't buying it. The group's president, Barbara Blaine, charged that the "bishops have defined the rules of the game, decided who plays, paid the umpires, and are now declaring themselves the winners."

Snapped Blaine: "They are judging themselves on inadequate criteria like having 'a written abuse policy', 'a communications policy,' 'a formal complaint procedure,' and 'a staff person assigned to hear victims' reports.' These, we believe, are long, overdue minimal steps, certainly not worthy of praise or commendation."


She continued: "It's terribly na?ve to believe that these same bishops will totally reverse course, and voluntarily disclose these shameful secrets, just because a retired bureaucrat with a clip board walks in their door."

With appropriate hedging, others, not known as fans of the hierarchy, saw signs of progress. "The mere fact that former FBI agents have been in every diocese in this country investigating whether the bishops are complying with the Dallas charter is significant," said the liberals of Call to Action. "The secrecy of the past is giving way to a time of increased lay oversight and accountability."

"The fact that the audit was completed is noteworthy in itself, since it represents the first time bishops and dioceses have opened their doors to the scrutiny of outsiders," said Sue Archibald, president of Linkup, a survivor's advocacy group. "This is a commendable step toward accountability and a process that we hope will expand and continue."

Voice of the Faithful termed the effort "a small, but important step in restoring confidence that the Catholic church in the future will operate with greater transparency to prevent the abuse of children."

Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, who nearly 20 years ago tried to convince the bishops to give clergy abuse the attention it deserved, said the report "contains much to commend it."

His assessment: "The major problem with this report and the process which it describes is that it seems primarily geared toward re-establishing the lost credibility of the bishops rather than getting at the root cause of the sex abuse nightmare and thereby effectively dealing with the many painful aspects of this nightmare."

Away from the glare of the national press corps the report was being used to do just what Doyle said -- reestablish lost credibility. Some diocesan public relations officers couldn't resist the temptation to overplay the findings -- citing their "full" compliance and touting their "commendations" though not their faults. The result, of course, is less credibility.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., -- headed by conservative hero Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz -- was proudly recalcitrant. The bishops' conference "has no authority or power to make disciplinary laws that bind individual dioceses," said a diocesan statement. Bruskewitz is refusing to participate in another study, this one on the "scope of the crisis," conducted by the John Jay School of Criminal Justice.

On Jan. 7, the day after the bishops released their report, the Unification Church-owned Washington Times ran a front-page headline: "Sexual Abuse Claimed in DC Archdiocese". It seems that some of the same lawyers who won an $85 million settlement for Boston archdiocese victims have set their sights on Washington. "Our investigation to date reveals a history of abuse and negligent supervision comparable to that of Boston," according to a letter they sent to the archdiocese.

Victims fear that the audit report will result in complacency, that bishops will claim victory and move on. Perhaps they're right.

Late last year, bishops' conference president Wilton Gregory said the bishops have "turned the corner" on the crisis. And perhaps he's correct.

But with additional reports scheduled for release in late February, angry victims, frustrated priests, and commission-hungry lawyers ready to pounce, the bishops would be wise to consider what's beyond that bend.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.