Catholic Abuse Review in Turmoil

By Gary Stern
The Journal News [United States]
May 13, 2004

Stinging criticism of the nation's Catholic bishops by a top lay official monitoring the church's handling of sex abuse has victims groups demanding that the church openly reaffirm its commitment to protecting children from abuse.

In a March 30 letter to the president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, the interim chair of an independent review board on sex abuse scolded the bishops for returning to "business as usual" once the sex-abuse scandal faded from headlines.

"People of good faith were willing to give the bishops the benefit of the doubt over the handling of the crisis because it looked as though they had turned a corner and were serious about making changes," wrote Anne Burke, an Illinois appellate court judge. "It would be shameful if we were now to discover that we were wrong about that commitment of our bishops."

Burke's letter, and several strongly worded responses from bishops, were posted Tuesday on the Web site of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent, liberal Catholic newspaper.

The crux of the exchange of letters was a decision by the bishops to delay a second, annual audit of how all 195 dioceses are complying with a 2002 policy to curtail abuse. Several bishops, including Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, asked Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, to hold things up until bishops could meet in November.

Burke's protest convinced the bishops to deal with the issue during a closed-door meeting next month in Denver. But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the nation's largest victims group, called yesterday on the bishops to open that meeting in light of the concerns raised by Burke.

"We're saying to the bishops, 'Show that you're not afraid, that you're willing to have the openness and transparency that you promised in 2002,' " said David Cerulli, a SNAP leader in New York. "Otherwise, how can the church regain the people's trust?"

The 12-member National Review Board, appointed by the bishops in 2002, released its first audit in January, finding that about 90 percent of dioceses were complying with church rules on abuse.

Pamela Hayes, a Manhattan lawyer and review board member, said yesterday that bishops would essentially kill a planned 2004 audit if they delayed the process until after their November meeting.

"The way this was done was underhanded," Hayes said. "If we don't begin until November, there is no way an audit can be performed on schedule. If you want to tweak it for 2005, that may be perfectly fine. But you can't stop the process in the middle. Some may feel they are trying to kill it, sabotage it. That's a logical reaction to what the bishops are doing."

Hayes said that some bishops, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, are insistent on the audit moving forward.

"He says to come out to L.A., so everyone knows they're going about things the right way," she said.

Egan's spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, said Egan has given no indication that he does not support the audit process.

"All Cardinal Egan has asked for is that this be something that the bishops have a chance to address together," Zwilling said. "They have some experience with this now, so, before moving forward, they should have a chance to address this as a body."

Burke, in her letter to Gregory, was particularly upset that the review board, when gathered in Washington in February for a news conference, was not told that some bishops were lobbying to delay the second audit.

"It is hard to reach any other conclusion than that the failure to tell the NRB of these matters in a timely fashion was to make sure that they did not come up in discussion with the national media," wrote Burke, who will step down as the board's chairwoman at the end of June because of time constraints.

In a subsequent letter to Burke, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said he was embarrassed by the tone of her letter to Gregory.

"Your language is designed to offend and contains implicit threats that are, to put it mildly, inappropriate for anyone of your professional stature," Chaput wrote.

Burke's predecessor as the review board's head, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, resigned last year after provoking the bishops' ire by criticizing their secrecy and comparing them to the mafia.

Tom Malarkey, a Purchase resident who leads a Westchester-Fairfield chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic group calling for church reforms, said the future of the review board was in doubt.

"I think this an effort on the part of the bishops to put the entire situation behind them," he said. "They want to be done with the work of the National Review Board. It is critically important that the work of the board continue."

Voice of the Faithful is holding a conference about issues surrounding the review board on May 22 from 1 to 4 p.m. at St. Paul the Apostle Church, 405 W. 59th St. at Ninth Avenue, in Manhattan. Speakers will include Burke, Hayes and the Rev. Joseph O'Hare, president emeritus of Fordham University in the Bronx.


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