Lay Group Calls on Bishops to Open Summit
By Judith Kohler
The Associated Press, carried in Phillyburbs.com
June 14, 2004
DENVER - More than 250 of America's Roman Catholic bishops opened a private retreat Monday as a lay reform group and other protesters criticized the prelates for holding closed-door talks about their effort to prevent sexual abuse by priests.
The bishops are meeting through Saturday at a Denver-area hotel, with the majority of the sessions taken up by prayer and spiritual reflections.
However, they also were expected to talk about the abuse crisis and whether Catholic lawmakers who disagree with church policy should receive Holy Communion.
"The bishops have developed a severe case of laryngitis in their moral voice. We hope that doesn't become a permanent condition," said Kris Ward, national vice president of the Boston-based Voice of the Faithful, which called on the bishops to open the meeting.
The request echoed those from the liberal lay group Call to Action, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops, said the prayer retreat is held every five years and business isn't usually discussed in public. She said that won't change this time.
The U.S. bishops generally meet twice a year, with most sessions open to the media and some observers. The prelates are scheduled to hold their second meeting this year in November; most of that session will be open.
"I truly don't expect them to open the meeting," said Kay Goodnow, 67, a SNAP member from Lenexa, Kan.
Voice of the Faithful, formed in response to the abuse scandal, has expressed concern that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is backpedaling from a sex abuse reform policy drafted and adopted in 2002.
The conference president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, and many other bishops have insisted they will maintain their tough stance.
The bishops will consider this week whether to approve a second series of audits of American dioceses to determine whether the policy is being followed, a move opposed by some bishops.
Voice of the Faithful leaders also said they worried about the future of the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel the bishops created. Four of the 12 board members are stepping down, and Voice of the Faithful is concerned that bishops will appoint clergy to replace them, a move they said would erode the panel's independence.
"The path was laid out two years ago and any deviation from that is only going to undermine their credibility, if in fact it can be undermined any more," said Steve Krueger, Voice of the Faithful executive director.
Ward and Krueger said they would try to give the bishops petitions signed by tens of thousands of people seeking greater reforms. One asks Pope John Paul II to meet with sexual abuse victims, and bishops to reveal their part in transferring priests suspected of abuse.
The other issue on the bishops' agenda is the question of withholding Communion from elected officials who don't follow church policy.
Bishops can set policy for their own dioceses and have taken varied positions on the issue. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has said he would deny the sacrament to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights. Other bishops have said such lawmakers should abstain from the sacrament, while another group of prelates said Communion should not be used as a sanction.
A task force formed by the bishops is reviewing the relationship of the church to Catholics in public life, and is expected to give an interim report at the meeting. It may not release final guidelines for church leaders until after the November election.
On Monday, church leaders announced they had given the Republican and Democratic platform committees a copy of the bishops' document, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility."
The statement, which was released last fall, summarizes church teachings on public policy issues, such as opposition to abortion and stem-cell research, and urges compassion for immigrants, the sick and poor.
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