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By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington DC]
Downloaded March 3, 2004

As the National Review Board prepared to release its reports on the scope and causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis, the usual suspects gathered. Dozens of network and cable television cameras lined the walls and reporters jockeyed for seats at the standing-room-only press conference.

More Reporting from NCR

The day the John Jay Study and the National Review Board Report were released, NCR filed the story: Review board report cites unfit priests, negligent bishops for abuse crisis.

Look for comprehensive analysis of these reports and of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the March 12 issue of National Catholic Reporter.

Down the hall, Voice of the Faithful held its press conference and victim advocates, Barbara Blaine, David Clohessy and Mark Serrano, warned that the bishops would declare victory and try to move on. Not being members of the National Press Club, or credentialed media, they were not allowed inside the Review Board's event. They have grown accustomed to that treatment and know to make themselves available to the press when the official proceedings conclude.

But everyone else was there, brought together yet again to hear sordid tales of sexual and ecclesial misconduct.

It started in Dallas in June 2002, continued in New York in the fall when the Review Board, then just recently chastised by New York Cardinal Edward Egan, invited the press for lunch. It continued in Washington, as the bishops conference met in November of that year.

The press posse gathered again in June 2003, this time in St. Louis, where the bishops held their semi-annual meeting; later that summer, in Chicago, the Review Board conducted a public briefing after its regular meeting.

And just six weeks ago, in the same crowded room on the 13th floor of the National Press Building, the familiar faces convened to receive the first of the three reports commissioned by the Review Board. That one, which generally gave the bishops' high marks, dealt with policies implemented since Dallas to protect children.

At the Feb. 27 gathering, papal biographer George Weigel sat next to theological soulmate Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis Magazine and chair of the Bush campaign's Catholic outreach effort. Michael Paulson, of the Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe, was in the front row. Newsday religion writer Carol Eisenberg, instructed by a rent-a-cop to abandon her aisle-blocking seat, refused to do so.

The correspondent from the BBC sat between NCR's Washington reporter and Paul Likoudis of The Wanderer. Nine of the 12 members of the National Review Board were present.

The Review Board is a high powered group, chaired by Anne Burke, the Illinois judge who was elevated when former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating compared the bishops to the Mafia and quit the board. Other members include Robert Bennett, the Washington attorney, former Clinton chief-of-staff Leon Panetta, Bill Burleigh, former CEO of E.W. Scripps, and Dr. Michael Bland, clinical pastoral coordinator for Victims Assistance Ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago and a self-described "thriving survivor" of clerical sexual abuse.

Nicholas Cafardi, Dean of the Duquesne University Law School sat next to Pamela Hayes, a New York attorney. Jane Chiles, former executive director of the Kentucky Catholic Conference was there, as was Paul McHugh, a sharp-tongued New Englander who served for 26 years as psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Among the missing board members was Ray Siegfried, an Oklahoma businessman, whose health has clearly deteriorated since he joined the board. Siegfried suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

In January, when the audit report was released, Siegfried was present, seated in a high-tech wheelchair, aided by his son. He could not speak, so Bill Burleigh read his statement. "We urge the bishops to embrace these recommendations, offered as they are in a spirit of helpfulness, and not to impede the signal progress that has been made. The work of cleansing our church has not been completed. It has only started. We members of the National Review Board promise our continued vigilance that the start, so well made, does not slow."

It was that tone of respectful directness, so often missing in the crisis, that Siegfried brought to the public gatherings of the board.

Then, on that first Friday of Lent, researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice presented their findings -- more than 4,000 priests were accused of molesting more than 10,000 kids between 1950-2002. Ugly stuff, but, because the John Jay study had been widely leaked prior to the press conference, not surprising.

The complete reports prepared by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board can be found online:

John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research Study Website

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops Research Study Website

The Catholic Review Board Research Study Website

Note: The documents are large and in PDF format. You may need to install Acrobat Reader on your machine.

Then Bennett, the former prosecutor, Lenten purple tie loosely knotted, approached the lectern. He read from the report.

Bishops and other church leaders did not understand the broad nature of the problem but treated allegations as sporadic and isolated.

Some bishops and other church leaders often put what they erroneously believed to be the institutional concerns of the local church above the concerns of the universal church. The fear of scandal caused them to practice secrecy and concealment.

The threat of litigation caused some bishops to disregard their pastoral role and adopt an adversarial stance not worthy of the church.

Some bishops and other church leaders failed to comprehend fully the extent and magnitude of the harm suffered by victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Bishops and other church leaders relied too heavily on psychiatrists, psychologists, and lawyers in dealing with a problem that, while it undoubtedly has psychological causes and legal implications, is at its heart a problem of faith and morality.

Bishops and other church leaders did not do enough in the way of "fraternal correction" to ensure that their brethren dealt with the problem in an effective manner.

Some bishops and other church leaders placed the interests of the accused priests above those of the victims and too often declined to hear from victims directly, relying instead on denials and assurances from those accused of abuse.

Canon law and canonical procedures made it too difficult to remove a predator priest from ministry, and bishops did not make sufficient use of what canonical authority they did have to take action against such priests and protect the children and young people of the church.

Following the Review Board's press conference, bishops' conference president Wilton Gregory, Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Harry Flynn, and Fr. Ronald Witherup, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, met the press. The bishops reserved the Press Club ballroom for their event, so the crunch of bodies was lessened.

"The terrible history recorded here today is history," said Gregory. " I assure you that known offenders are not in ministry," he declared. Victim advocates, meanwhile, say that more than 20 abusers with credible allegations against them continue to serve as priests.

What does it all mean?

The victims are unrelenting, critical that bishops still refuse to identify by name the 4,000-plus priestly predators and fearful that the hierarchy will declare victory and move on.

Long-term church observers see progress, not so much because of what the report says (though the findings were generally praised), but because it has been said at all.

"Here we have for the first time a group of undoubtedly responsible top level lay leaders who have devoted almost two years to examining the way in which the church is governed," Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, told NCR. The board, said Neuhaus, has "come up with some very serious proposals which are respectful of the church's divine constitution, which are not proposed to advance an agenda but rather to help the bishops be the kind of leaders they are ordained to be. I don't think we've ever had this before."

Author Eugene Kennedy called the report "a remarkable achievement," which demonstrates the "theological sophistication" of the American laity. Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Church, said the board provided an "important service to the church and to society." Said Cozzens, "I hope it signals a new day for the laity, who are calling the bishops to be faithful to what they said they would do."

Bob Bennett agreed to serve on the National Review Board, he told NCR, as "payback." The debt was owed to the Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep High School, who noticed his verbal skills and turned him into a champion debater. His debt paid, Bennett plans to leave the board in June.

And what does he think the bishops will do with the work he shepherded?

"I am by no means confident that they [the bishops] will make the basic changes they have to be made in governance," said Bennett. "And at the end of the day, if they don't, I think there are going to be other problems."

*****

Speaking of the usual suspects, President Bush met Feb. 18 with a group of conservative Catholics. The ever-present Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis Magazine and chairman of the Bush campaign's Catholic outreach effort was there, as were William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, former Reagan and Bush I speechwriter Peggy Noonan, Kathryn Jean Lopez, associate editor of National Review magazine, and Vincentian Fr. David O'Connell, president of Catholic University.

No members of the hierarchy attended.

Lopez offered this review on National Review's Web site: "The president, who was two seats across from me and made eye contact with me often (as he made a point to with everyone) exuded confidence and discipline and passion. He talked about very many issues in a 50-something-minute meeting (which I gather was planned to be much shorter), but there was no doubt that war is foremost on his mind -- the security of this nation he swore to protect and defend and all. Hearing him you realize just how grave the threat we face every day, and the constant, daily decision-making that happens."

Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, was equally fawning. "The president bounded into the Roosevelt Room at 10:30 on a weekday morning with a flurry of aides behind him. He looked tanned, rested and perhaps preoccupied. He walked around the table and shook hands with everyone. Then he did something surprising. He sat down at the big brown meeting table and instead of offering an opening comment and then taking questions, as I'd expected, he simply talked to us about how he sees the world. He did this for 45 minutes. He was funny and frank."

 
 

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