Can Church Handle Truth?

By Cathy Lynn Grossman
USA Today [United States]
Downloaded February 26, 2004

On Friday, a lay board of prominent U.S. Catholics will release its accounting of the church's explosive child sexual abuse scandal, laden with numbers higher than any predictions. It also will issue a second report analyzing 50 years of church secrecy and mismanagement underlying the crisis.

Yet the reports baring the details of the scandal will be, ultimately, "good news," the interim chairman of the group said Wednesday.

The reports will steer bishops toward solutions and prompt them "to call in (their) people and put us to work" on urgent issues in Catholic life beyond the crisis, says Illinois Appellate Court Judge Anne Burke, head of the National Review Board.

That rallying cry to the laity may be news to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which established the board at the apex of the scandal in June 2002. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the group, said last week that the lessons of Friday's reports are specific to the abuse crisis and the level of lay involvement will likely not "mutate" over to other issues.

The painful numbers and sharp critique the bishops expect on Friday will show their forthright effort to address the abuse tragedy, prevent recurrence, and restore bishops' credibility with the nation's 65 million Catholics, he said.

The total number of alleged abusers cited in the statistical study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will likely surpass 5,000 of the 110,000 priests in active ministry in 195 dioceses since 1950. An Associated Press tally of 112 dioceses that have voluntarily released their local statistics found the number of abusive priests already over 4,757, not including major archdioceses such as Boston.

A CNN report, based on an early draft of the study, cited more than 11,000 allegations of priests abusing children and teens. Looking at underlying factors in the scandal, CNN reported that key mistakes by bishops included failure to grasp its gravity; overemphasis on avoidance of scandal; use of unqualified treatment centers; misguided willingness to forgive; and insufficient accountability.

On Wednesday, Burke, in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, would not comment on those media reports. However, she was concerned that the public misunderstood the role of the board and may have "expectations not based on reality."

"We do not have a prosecutorial role" in identifying and removing bishops who permitted abusive priests to continue in ministry and failed to care for their victims, says Burke. The board had a different job description all along, and she argues, a more valuable potential role in shaping the future of the church. The board's mandates were to:

• Establish the Office of Child and Youth Protection. It directed an audit of all 195 dioceses' compliance with the bishops' policy on reporting and removing abusers, setting up abuse prevention programs and treating victims. The first national audit report, released in January, showed overwhelming compliance and, Burke said, gave laity "tools to hold their local bishops accountable."

• Oversee the statistical study (known as the John Jay report) being released on Friday.

• Examine causes and context of the scandal to provide a base for research on abuse in society.

"Our goal was to get information, to hear the other side of every view," said Burke.

The two years of intense work, she said, will have been a success if they prompt bishops to establish similar lay task forces on other major issues.

"We are in a very exciting time for a very bad reason. Criminal sexual assault against a minor is a horrible, horrible reason to come together to work on a board, but the good work we do will show the church that lay people love the church.

"This is our church collectively. I want my church to be a better church, to function better and to include me," she said.

Friday's reports can only do good if they "prompt people toward action," says David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Old habits die hard. It's a rigid institution. But despite that, the stakes are so high you can't help but desperately want to see real change."