Lay Panel Alleges Deceit by Bishops
Chairwoman Says Clergymen Considered Thwarting Proposed Remedies Even before They Were Announced
By Carol Eisenberg
Newsday [New York]
May 12, 2004
A leader of the high-profile lay committee investigating the clergy sex abuse scandals said yesterday he was "not optimistic" the nation's Catholic bishops would continue acting aggressively to protect children from molesters because "there are some bishops who want to delay and to retrench."
The comments by Washington lawyer Robert Bennett came the same day that The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper, quoted a letter from Illinois Justice Anne Burke, chairwoman of the lay panel, saying the group was "manipulated" by some bishops who used it for public relations cover.
Burke wrote March 29 to Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., head of the U.S. bishops, that the panel had helped the bishops "dodge the bullet."
Even as panel members were presenting findings on the sexual abuse scandal at a Feb. 27 news conference, Burke wrote, they were not informed that the bishops were considering shelving or delaying some measures, including a second round of audits to monitor their compliance with new child protection policies.
"It is hard to reach any other conclusion than that the failure to tell the National Review Board of these matters in a timely fashion was to make sure that they did not come up in any discussions with the national media on February 27th," Burke wrote. "In short, we were manipulated."
Panel members said that the entire group had approved the letter from Burke and that the quoted text was accurate.
"We are concerned that there are some bishops who want to delay and perhaps clip the wings of the board and not really do the audits that are expected to be done," Bennett said. "Hopefully, that is not the case. But we are concerned about that. And we are hopeful that those bishops who continue to support the board will be able to prevail at the bishops' meeting, because I think tremendous damage will be done to the church, otherwise."
The 12-member board of lay Catholics, appointed by the bishops in 2002 to oversee the church's reform efforts, is required to release an annual report detailing whether all 195 U.S. dioceses are following new policies. But this year's audits were put off after several bishops, including Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, lobbied to delay them until the bishops had a chance to discuss them.
Initially, the bishops' discussion was deferred to November, which would have made an annual report for this year all but impossible, panel members said. After lay panel members expressed consternation, the discussion was moved up to a meeting in June.
A spokesman for the bishops said they were not retreating from their commitment.
"The idea that they want to talk about it is to their credit," said the spokesman, Msgr. Francis Maniscalco. "It's not in any way indicative that they're backing off this issue. The bishops have gotten a massive amount of material only in the course of this year, and so they need to assess what the most effective next step to take would be."
Several members of the lay panel were not convinced.
"I feel absolutely outraged," said New York City attorney Pamela Hayes, another panel member. "They delayed a second round of audits when these things are laid out very clearly in the charter."
Victims' advocates, meanwhile, called for tough oversight by civil authorities.
"Now more than ever, if children are to be safer, it is clear that civil authorities must work even harder on genuine reform and effective prevention," said David Cerulli, head of the New York group of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
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