Church Leaders Accused of Impeding Reform

By Richard N. Ostling
Guardian [Morris Plains NJ]
May 12, 2004

MORRIS PLAINS, N.J. (AP) - A key panel of lay Roman Catholics is angrily accusing American bishops of backsliding on a central plank of their reform program aimed at stopping clergy sexual abuse.

But some church leaders are fighting back, saying that the National Review Board is overstepping its authority.

"There can be no more foot-dragging by the hierarchy," Anne Burke, interim chair of the review board, said Tuesday night at an appearance in northern New Jersey. The first leader of the board, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, quit last year after he also accused some bishops of being obstructionists.

This is a "defining moment" for the church, said Burke, an Illinois Appellate justice, speaking to members of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform lobby group.

The flash point in the dispute between the board and certain bishops is a section of the prelates' 2002 sex abuse policy, which - as part of its monitoring provisions - calls for audits of each diocese to ensure they are complying with the policy.

Results of the first such audit, for 2003, were issued in January and the review board insists the policy requires that further audits must be done annually.

But all the bishops in Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and perhaps others elsewhere, want the hierarchy to set policy on future audits at its November meeting, where an overall review of the 2002 reform "charter" is scheduled.

Some bishops have complained that the review board has overstepped its proper role, assuming authority that belongs to bishops alone. The review board was formed as part of the 2002 abuse policy.

There are "disturbing trends" toward overly expanded responsibilities and activities by the panel, according to a protest letter from the bishops of Connecticut and Rhode Island that was among documents posted Tuesday on the Web site of the independent National Catholic Reporter.

In March, the U.S. bishops' 46-member Administrative Committee agreed to delay discussion of audits until November, effectively canceling them for this year.

Burke, speaking for all review board members, then wrote a rebuke to the hierarchy's president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill.

With no 2004 audit, Burke warned, the bishops risk having it seem they were "willing to be honest and compliant" when public outrage peaked in 2002 but now want to put the abuse crisis behind them.

"We are very disheartened by this apparent decision to go back to 'business as usual,"' Burke wrote. "Those who said that the bishops were never serious about breaking free from the sins, crimes and bad judgments of the past will be vindicated."

Gregory and the bishops' other officers then put the audit issue on the agenda for a closed door meeting of the bishops in June, originally planned as a spiritual retreat.

The Office of Child and Youth Protection, an agency on the bishops' staff supervised by the review board, runs audits. Its director, Kathleen McChesney, conferred Monday with the private firm that conducted the 2003 field work and says 2004 audits are still feasible if the bishops give a go-ahead.

David Clohessy of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a speaker at the New Jersey meeting, said he's troubled by the bishops' reluctance. To regain trust from victims, the bishops need to be more open - not less, he said.

Gregory declined a request for an interview. Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagrees with the review board's reading of the 2002 policy. He says the text requires McChesney to report annually on the performance of each diocese on abuse reforms, but not necessarily annual audits.

The dispute arises as Burke and three of the board's other 11 members plan to depart June 30, as previously agreed. Gregory will appoint their replacements.

The new members will not only have to negotiate the audit issue but a costly and potentially explosive study on the underlying causes of clergy abuse. It is expected to touch on issues such as celibacy and gay priests.

They won't get much cooperation from Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., one of the board's toughest critics.

In an interview with the conservative Catholic World Report magazine the bishop said it's a mistake to let the review board enforce the charter through "the threat of bad publicity for a bishop or a diocese."

On the Net:

Bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection:

National Catholic Reporter texts:


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