The Cover-up Continues

National Catholic Reporter
May 21, 2004

Two years ago, at their meeting in Dallas, the U.S. bishops pledged a new era of accountability and openness. As part of that process, they empanelled a group of prominent lay people -- leaders in their respective fields of business, government, academia, law and the nonprofit sector -- and charged them with the task of investigating the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis and reporting on their findings.

Further, the National Review Board was asked to oversee the work of the newly created Office of Child and Youth Protection, the mission of which was to see that the church's nearly 200 U.S. dioceses implemented the child-protection programs promised by the bishops' conference.

The board's work has been exemplary. They hired a top-notch professional to administer the Office of Child and Youth Protection, oversaw audits that demonstrated that nearly every U.S. diocese had begun the process of complying with the child-protection policies enacted by the national bishops' conference, and produced two reports that have furthered our understanding of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Amazingly for a church so divided, the board's work has been praised by Catholic liberals, moderates and conservatives.

Now, as NCR's reporting demonstrates (see related story), the entire effort is endangered. A good number of bishops want to declare victory and move on.

We shouldn't be surprised.

Along the way, there have been hints that prominent members of the hierarchy were, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about the board's work. In January 2003 New York Cardinal Edward Egan snubbed the board, first agreeing to say Mass for the group when they met in New York and then, citing scheduling conflicts, reneging on the commitment. Six months later, the board's first chairman, the blunt-spoken former governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, resigned under pressure from Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and other bishops. Keating, who famously compared the bishops to the mafia, had also lost the confidence of his fellow board members.

At the bishops' November 2003 meeting, a routine budget request ($265,000 to hire two consultants and a secretary) for the Office of Child and Youth Protection became an occasion to debate the merits of the program itself. Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., questioned whether the bishops should add additional personnel to the child protection effort while other departments within the bishop's bureaucracy faced cutbacks. "Can't we complete the job without the consultants?" asked Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa.

Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., was among those who jumped to the office's defense. He declared, "This is the most serious pastoral crisis that has ever been faced in this country. To not give the director what she believes she needs would be ... a mistake of enormous pastoral proportions." The budget request was agreed to.

And now it's revealed that even as the bishops were basking in the good work done by the board they themselves established, dozens of their members were secretly planning to prevent a second round of audits this year. An additional study -- an "epidemiological" follow-up to the report produced by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice -- appears likely to be killed.

The cover-up continues.

The notion of "fraternal correction" -- the idea that one bishop will call another on the carpet when things are demonstrably out-of-whack -- is laughable. The boys' club of the American episcopacy is quick to chastise those "below" them (laity, priests and sisters alike), but it is considered bad form to challenge a colleague.

Singularly among significant institutions in this country, the Catholic church is unaccountable, its leaders subject only to an inattentive Vatican bureaucracy and, it seems, God. And its leaders, or many of them in any case, like it that way.

But it can't last. American Catholics are Americans and, as such, they demand accountability.

When The New York Times or USA Today publishes phony stories, editors resign; when Martha Stewart plays fast-and-loose in the stock market or Enron executives employ creative accounting, they are tried; when mega-star Michael Jackson is indicted on charges of child abuse, all of his millions and popularity cannot keep him out of court; when U.S. soldiers torture Iraqi prisoners, Congress holds hearings. Our elected officials regularly face the electorate. And so on and so on. It is an imperfect system, to be sure, but when scandal reaches certain levels in the varied aspects of this complex culture, we have mechanisms that shed light.

In the church, where at least dozens of bishops allowed child molesters to remain in ministry and paid out huge settlements without consulting or notifying the wider church, only Boston Cardinal Bernard Law is forced out. And he, amazingly enough, remains an influential figure in Rome.

Is it too late to salvage the National Review Board' Perhaps. It is entirely possible that a majority of bishops are privately sympathetic to the dozens whose displeasure with oversight is now public.

But if that's not the case -- if a majority of bishops actually support accountability and want the church to overcome the pain their cover-ups and malfeasance have caused -- then there are a few steps that can be taken.

In the short term, beginning with their closed-door meeting next month in Denver, the bishops should quickly and emphatically approve continuation of the audits and provide the funds to conduct the epidemiological study. Plus, they should open that discussion to the press and public. It's time we knew who favors full disclosure and openness and who opposes it.

Next, the National Review Board will have several vacancies beginning next month. Among those rotating off the panel are interim chair Anne Burke and Washington attorney Robert Bennett. They should be replaced by people of equal stature and good sense who would also protect the board's independence and continue to demand accountability.

Finally, the bishops need to institutionalize the process of fraternal correction. Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, a noted canonist, recommends a process of "visitation," where experts sympathetic to the problems of running a diocese investigate and report on the state of governance and spiritual life of individual dioceses. A similar procedure is used by universities and hospitals. It's a long overdue step in the church.

The bishops are dealing with the very health of the body of Christ. They should act like it.


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