Bishops Will Face a Host of Controversial Issues

By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News
June 10, 2004

ENGLEWOOD - When the nation's Catholic bishops initially agreed to meet here next week for a "spiritual retreat," they didn't plan on long working hours or unexpected guests like Pat Colfer.

Colfer will be hovering around the bishops when their retreat begins Monday at the Inverness Hotel.

She won't be alone.

Several hundred Catholics representing various causes are planning activities before and during the bishops' meeting - a reflection of the church's own embrace of activism and the fallout from lingering and newly stirred controversies.

The bishops will discuss the status of the church's sex abuse reforms. They also will confront their own differences over how much the church should become involved in politics, including whether Communion should be denied to Catholics who don't follow church teaching on serious issues such as abortion.

"Vatican II has called us to be the church, and being the church is speaking out," said Colfer, a former nun and now a member of Call to Action, founded in 1976. That national activist group favors women priests and optional celibacy.

Lay participation - encouraged by Vatican II, the worldwide church council convened in the 1960s - will get its workout beginning Friday.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests will hold its annual three-day meeting beginning at 7 p.m. Friday at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver.

The 14-year-old group became prominent several years ago as the Catholic sex abuse scandal flared, resulting in scores of lawsuits and the dismissal of about 700 priests and deacons from the clergy.

SNAP, as it's called, will hold a speakers forum on Saturday, and a 10 a.m. Sunday service for clergy sex abuse victims who committed suicide.

Colorado Concerned Catholics will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the Marriott Courtyard Inn, not far from the bishops' meeting place. The group hopes to attract at least 100 people to gather outdoors for "hope, singing and dialogue," said organizer Diana Flahive.

"It's not a protest, it's a prayer," Flahive said. "We're praying for dialogue with the people in the church, and we've invited the bishops to join us."

While no bishops have responded yet, "we would be thrilled to have just one," she said.

Call to Action will hold its first event at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Hyatt Regency. The organization will call for an extension of the sex abuse audits in each diocese, which are meant to measure how well the church is carrying out post-scandal reforms.

The group also has plans for an "optional celibacy campaign" at 10 a.m. Monday at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Englewood. On Tuesday, it will hold an all-day vigil near the Inverness Hotel, the site of the bishops' meeting, and provide people a chance to videotape their concerns for viewing by the prelates.

The group will release a brochure that summarizes the main findings of the national study on clergy sex abuse undertaken by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The study concluded that between 1950 and 2002 more than 10,000 minors had accused more than 4,000 U.S. Catholic priests out of 110,000 working in that era of sex abuse.

The bishops' response in 2002 was to authorize a national Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth.

It called for a number of oversights, including a national lay Catholic review board and what members believed would be ongoing sex abuse audits. The first audit was voluntary and agreed to by most of the 195 U.S. dioceses. Conducted mainly by retired FBI agents, the audits assessed compliance with and programs for eliminating sex abuse.

But early this year, some bishops began complaining to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that the audit process had become intrusive and expensive. The bishops believed only one audit was required under the charter anyway - and so the process was halted pending a discussion at the bishops' regular working session in November.

That infuriated the head of the review board, Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anne Burke. She accused the bishops of reneging on their commitment to sex abuse reform. This week, she voiced some hope that they would continue on with audits, but said if action isn't taken at the Englewood meeting, the future of reforms is "dim."

"I'm hoping in my heart of hearts that they really do get this," Burke said. "It's so important to the laity of the United States that they continue with what they said they would do, but right now I don't know."

The prelates also will consider a progress report by a bishops' task force on faith and public life.

The task force, headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., is to provide guidelines on a range of issues, but the most pressing is the controversy over the reception of Communion by Catholics who do not follow church teaching on issues such as abortion and euthanasia.

The full study will not be completed until after the 2004 election. But on Monday, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput indicated that the gathering might try to develop a statement of unity on the subject.

"A lot of bishops have already expressed a desire for some sort of coordinated statement," he said.

Bishops' responses have run the gamut - even in Colorado. Pueblo Bishop Arthur Tafoya, for example, has said he wouldn't refuse Communion to anybody, while Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs decreed that such Catholics, both politicians and those who vote for them, should recant before receiving Communion.


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