Lincoln Diocese: Bishop in Spotlight for Response to Sexual Abuse Audit

Sioux City Journal [Lincoln NE]
Downloaded January 18, 2004

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nearly eight years after making national news by threatening to excommunicate Catholics who belong to certain groups, a Nebraska bishop is in the spotlight again -- this time for refusing to fully comply with the church's effort to prevent sexual abuse of children.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln won't require background checks of all current employees and volunteers who have regular contact with children. He also won't participate in a study designed to tally every church abuse case in the country since 1950, said the Rev. Mark Huber, a spokesman for the diocese.

The background checks were among the recommendations in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.

The church abuse study was commissioned by the bishops as part of an effort to develop safeguards to prevent sexual abuse.

But Bruskewitz contends only the Vatican -- and not the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- has the authority to create binding laws, Huber said.

"Every diocesan bishop does not have to follow the charter to be in compliance with what the church is asking," Huber said.

The diocese will, however, take the bishops' recommendations under advisement and will follow them as they best fit the southern Nebraska diocese, Huber said.

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who now oversees the bishops' new watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection, said she was disappointed in Bruskewitz's stance.

She said the recommendations were written to bring a uniform response to the sexual abuse scandal, and interpreting them differently around the country would create confusion.

"I see the charter as a document that the bishops adopted," McChesney said. "One goal of the charter was to reduce that confusion."

Huber said parishes within the Lincoln diocese can voluntarily conduct background checks of all employees and volunteers if they see fit, but pastors could decide some people who have worked for years without complaint do not need a background check.

However, all new workers and volunteers who work with children will have their backgrounds checked, he said.

Bruskewitz contends the study, set for release Feb. 27, will be flawed because people conducting it are relying on self-reporting.

Huber said another problem Bruskewitz, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has with the study is that some of the information in it will include inconclusive and anonymous allegations. The bishop also noted many of the accused are dead and cannot defend themselves.

Huber said there also isn't a way to compare the study's results with what might be found among people who work in other professions.

Lincoln is one of only a few dioceses in the country that may not take part in the study. A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, said overall response to the study has been high, and the Lincoln diocese's input will not be essential.

"The study will be very valid and able to say what was the nature and scope of the problem, which is what it set out to do," Maniscalco said.

Bruskewitz has blamed dissent from Catholic moral teaching for the church's sexual abuse scandal, which began two years ago with revelations about a predatory priest in the Archdiocese of Boston and spread to every diocese in the country.

The first public rumblings of Bruskewitz's refusal to cooperate with the national bishops' group came on Jan. 6. An internal church audit showed the Lincoln diocese was among only 10 percent of the country's 195 dioceses that had not fully complied with the conference's recommendations.

Three days later, Bruskewitz issued a statement saying he would not participate in the study of sexual abuse in the church.

The audit did credit the Lincoln diocese with making a videotape on sexual abuse available to all personnel who have regular contact with children and for publicizing its standards of conduct for diocesan employees and volunteers. It recommended that the diocese provide more guidance to its sexual abuse review board and involve the board at the initial stages after an allegation of abuse is received.

The Lincoln diocese serves about 90,000 Catholics in 39 of Nebraska's 93 counties and includes Lincoln, the state's capital and site of the University of Nebraska's main campus.

The diocese has long been known for its conservative bent. Girls, for example, are not allowed to serve at the altar, a practice that has become common around the country. Bruskewitz believes that having boys serve at the altar encourages vocations to the priesthood, Huber said.

Bruskewitz also welcomed to the diocese the U.S. branch of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which built a seminary near Denton and began classes in 2000. The fraternity emphasizes the Latin rite Mass, in which the priest speaks Latin and faces away from the congregation.

Bruskewitz became nationally known in 1996 when he threatened to excommunicate Lincoln Catholics who belong to certain groups that he considered perilous to the faith. Those groups included the Masons and church reform advocate Call to Action.

The bishop once again has demonstrated arbitrary authority, said Jim McShane of Lincoln, a member of Call to Action who was targeted by the bishop's excommunication threats.

"The American bishops are trying very hard to alleviate any concerns people may have about the safety of their children, and this bishop has decided 'nobody can make me do it,"' McShane said.

Huber said the diocese is complying with Vatican-approved steps to protect children, including having a written policy on handling sexual abuse of minors and removing from ministry work any priests who have committed sexual abuse.

In fact, the Lincoln diocese's policy on sexual abuse was issued in 1992, the year Bruskewitz became bishop and years before the sexual abuse scandal broke, Huber said.

Bruskewitz does have backing in his diocese.

Thomas Bodensteiner, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Beatrice who was leaving a noon Mass on Thursday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in downtown Lincoln, said Bruskewitz is a holy man who is faithful to the church and to Pope John Paul II.

Bruskewitz has decided the study on sexual abuse in the church is flawed, Bodensteiner said, and not requiring background checks on current employees is just common sense.

"If you know anybody for a long, long time you should know and trust them," Bodensteiner said.

But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Bruskewitz's stance lacks compassion for abuse victims and people who are concerned about the issue.

"How on earth could a victim feel comfortable reporting to a person like Bruskewitz, who so vigorously resists even these baby steps?" Clohessy said.

The Rev. Paul Witt, pastor at St. Mary's, said the diocese has not had a case of church sexual abuse in at least 20 years, and he trusts the bishop to do what needs to be done to protect children.

Bruskewitz has addressed priests at least twice about the abuse scandal, Witt said.

"The general feeling is, stay on it," Witt said. "We certainly don't want even one iota of one more incident happening."


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