The Bishops' Opportunity

Journal News [United States]
February 23, 2004

Even as the public awaits an important study on the breadth of sex-abuse claims against Roman Catholic priests nationally, another American bishop finds himself squirming under the glare of accusation, this time in upstate New York. The fallout of, and pain inflicted by, the Catholic Church scandal only grows - all the more reason why the institution and its leaders must fulfill their pledge of full transparency as they search for the causes of decades of crimes against youth and its tolerance.

Yet will they" This week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans to release an independent report on the number of abuse claims since 1950 by minors against clergy in the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses. Additionally, a lay watchdog panel overseeing the study is expected to issue its own assessment of why the allegations and acts were ignored, avoided or hushed up for so long.

The survey, being conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York at the bishops' behest, is expected to provide startling numbers of abuse claims " more than 11,000, early reports say; numbers of clergy involved " at least 4,450; and the amount of money " already known to be in the tens of millions of dollars " paid by the Catholic Church to settle claims against it, its leaders and priests.

The report is scheduled for release Friday and will be based on information provided by individual dioceses. That has victims' advocates suspicious that the case numbers will be underreported because of the involvement of the bishops themselves " itself an indication of how thin the trust is.

Meanwhile, last week was one that saw the former head of Arizona's largest diocese convicted of a felony in connection with the death of a pedestrian, and the bishop of Albany facing his own trials. Howard. J. Hubbard, a liberal bishop, is facing accusations of a homosexual affair with a man who killed himself in 1978 and sexual encounters with a teen street hustler. Hubbard has insisted he has practiced a life of chastity and has launched a very public campaign to regain his reputation.

The Albany diocese's lay review board has hired a former federal prosecutor, Mary Jo White of Manhattan, to investigate. She has promised a public report.

Ironically, Hubbard has been considered one of the more open and even-handed of bishops, especially since the national sex-abuse scandal broke. Yet he has admittedly erred, acknowledging he allowed four priests to remain in ministry during his leadership, despite pending abuse allegations. His diocese previously said it had paid out "hundreds of thousands" of dollars in settlements with abuse victims, then later said the amount was $2.3 million.

In a recent interview, The New York Times reported, Hubbard acknowledged that he had not handled the allegations "with transparency and accountability" nor, he said, had he appreciated the effects of abuse on victims.

Such are the fatal flaws of church leaders, and recurring themes of the sex-abuse scandal, that continue to haunt the Catholic Church. The bishops were counting on the national survey to not only quantify the scandal but to help the institution move past it.

Yet the study will not break down statistics of accused priests and victims by individual diocese. It should. How else can local parishioners and the public assess the scope of the scandal in their dioceses"

To their credit, some leaders have already begun releasing data they had provided the John Jay researchers. Bishop William Murphy of Long Island said last week that 66 clergymen associated with the Diocese of Rockville Centre had been accused of abusing 132 minors between 1957 and 2002. More than half of the alleged incidents took place in the 1960s and '70s. In all, he said, the diocese spent $3.8 million in settlements, expenses and therapy for victims. Two New Jersey dioceses also released their data Wednesday.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which released its data last weekend, acknowledged paying $37.7 million in settlements. Victims' advocates, though, were vocal in their skepticism that the numbers could be trusted. An attorney who represented victims in two settlements, for example, said that longtime Bridgeport Bishop Walter Curtis, who retired in 1988, kept a secret archive of allegations and admitted destroying records. Jason Tremont, the attorney, and his firm also have accused New York Cardinal Edward Egan, Bridgeport bishop from 1988 to 2000, of allowing known sex abusers to remain active priests.

During his time in New York, Egan has demonstrated repeated foot-dragging in complying with the goals of the bishops' conference. Early on, he was stubbornly reluctant to share information with local district attorneys about criminal allegations. He also has not released reports on the status of more recently accused priests, including several in this region, that he promised last fall.

Individual allegations like the ones against Hubbard of Albany likely will continue to proliferate, as will distrust of accountability checks, unless church leaders begin to put transparency before public relations. They can help do that by releasing, in tandem with the John Jay study, diocese-by-diocese data on victims, accused clergy and settlements.


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