By Andrew Walsh
Religion in the News [United States]
July 6, 2004
Yet again the nation’s Catholic bishops have seized public relations defeat from the jaws of victory. On February 27, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released two tough reports on the clerical sexual abuse crisis prepared by the lay National Review Board it had empowered to establish the extent and causes of the crisis. The long anticipated reports contained both shocking statistics and trenchant criticism. Nevertheless, the church received more than grudging praise for its belated attempts to fashion and enforce systemic reforms to safeguard children and other vulnerable parties.
Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, president of bishops’ conference, resolutely met the press and appeared on news broadcasts to announce the reports and interpret their significance. His message for the day: The church has put the scandal behind it.
“I assure you that known offenders are not in ministry,” he declared at a news conference reported in the New York Times and many other outlets the next day. “The terrible history recorded here today is history.”
But on April 7, the Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman broke a story suggesting that the leadership of bishops’ conference had “rejected the recommendation by a panel of prominent Roman Catholic lay people that it immediately authorize a second round of independent audits of sex abuse procedures in dioceses across the country.” In mid-May the National Catholic Reporter published a slew of correspondence including bitter exchanges between some bishops and the review board.
“Correspondence made public Tuesday between leading U.S. bishops in the Roman Catholic Church and Justice Anne Burke, head of a 12-member board of prominent lay Catholics charged with watchdogging the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy toward clergy sexual abuse of children, reveals a tremendously acrimonious relationship,” Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times reported on May 12.
Burke, an Illinois appellate judge, was especially angry that Gregory and other bishops had not informed the review board that some bishops were trying to block the second round of audits before the board met the press in February.
“It is hard to reach any other conclusion than that the failure to tell the (board) about these matters in a timely fashion was to make sure that they did not come up in any discussion with the national media of February 27. In short, we were manipulated,” Burke wrote to Gregory and through him to all of the nation’s bishops. “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.”
Falsani reported that Burke was even angrier that the national episcopal leadership had allowed members of the review board to make a long report about plans for a second round of diocesan audits at a meeting of the bishops’ administrative committee on March 23 without mentioning the bishops’ plans to delay the audit until they could discuss the matter at a meeting in November.
Then, on May 18, Falsani and Geneive Abdo of the Chicago Tribune reported that the review board and the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Sexual Abuse had met in Chicago and reached an agreement under which the bishops would take up the question of the second round of audits at their June meeting in Denver.
It was a big mess in a long series of messes.
Since last fall, the sexual abuse story had focused on Catholic efforts to define the scope and causes of the crisis, along with a related discussion of whether Catholic bishops grasp the extent of the crisis of confidence in their leadership that has developed since the Boston phase of the scandal broke in January of 2002.
The largest cluster of stories surrounded the release of the review board’s reports. One tracked the progress of 195 Catholic dioceses in institutionalizing methods of preventing child sexual abuse and responding rapidly and firmly to new charges of abuse. The other offered the first apparently comprehensive assessment of the number of cases of abuse, priests charged with abuse, and the costs of settlements with victims since 1950.
Characteristic of coverage throughout the nation was the Washington Post’s lede in its story on the documents issued by the National Review Board: “An epidemic of child sexual abuse by priests tore through the Roman Catholic Church beginning in the 1960s and peaking in the 1970s as seminaries failed to weed out sexually dysfunctional men while bishops averted their eyes.”
At the heart of the report was the first summary of statistics on the crisis issued by Catholic officials based on a survey of diocesan records. Four percent of the approximately 110,000 priests in service since 1950 had allegations of sexual abuse of children filed against them; 10,667 alleged victims reported that they had been abused; and an additional 3,000 have not filed formal complaints. The total cost of settlements and treatment for priests and victims exceeds $572 million so far, with perhaps hundreds of millions more to follow.
In the weeks preceding the release of the reports, a long string of stories reported on the statistics gathered in individual dioceses as part of the review board’s investigation. A typical example appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the same day as the national report was released:
“The Roman Catholic bishop of Cleveland announced Friday that 117 priests and one deacon were accused of sexually abusing children in his diocese over the last 53 years,” Karen R. Long reported. “Admitting he made managerial mistakes, a grim-faced Bishop Anthony Pila said he was overwhelmed and saddened by the tabulation, part of a national assessment of the prevalence and causes of clergy sex abuse.”
Almost everywhere, journalists and others expressed interest in the statistics, as well as some skepticism that the church could be relied upon to police itself. As early as January 6, ABC’s “World News Tonight” reported that the church “announced today that it has made major progress against sexual abuse committed by its priests…. Not everyone agrees with the verdict.”
The statistical portrait—compiled by a team of former FBI agents and analyzed by a group of criminologists and psychologists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York—included a couple of unpleasant surprises. The finding that about 4 percent of priests had accusations filed against them was about twice the rate of previous estimates. And at his press conference Bishop Gregory reported that more than 700 priests had been removed from ministry since the beginning of the latest phase of the scandal in 2002—again about twice the number known previously.
While the report suggested that the crisis peaked during the 1970s and early 1980s, it was widely conceded that it often takes decades for charges to be filed in cases of child sexual abuse. Rates for the late 1990s appear to have dropped back to the rates of the 1950s. Eighty-one percent of the victims who have filed charges are male, and the largest group of victims was between 11 and 14 when they were assaulted.
In its assessment of the causes of the scandal, the review board emphasized the negligence of the bishops and the failures of Catholic seminaries to screen out potential abusers. Bishops routinely failed to report abuse to police, often allowed suspected abusers to continue ministering to minors, and spent “at least $572 million on legal settlements and counseling that kept allegations quiet.”
“Knowingly allowing evil to continue is cooperation with evil,” Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett, the principal author of the report, told the Washington Post. “We make no excuses for the bishops. Many bishops, certainly not all, breached their responsibilities as pastors, breached their responsibilities as shepherds of the flock and put their heads in the sand.”
The spin control efforts of Bishop Gregory and other church leaders were hampered by another of the series of dramatic news events that has dogged the church throughout the scandal.
Just a few days before the review board’s report was made public, Bishop Thomas L. Dupre resigned suddenly as bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts. He cited ill health, but almost immediately the Springfield Republican broke a story containing allegations by two men that Dupre had abused sexually them as teenagers.
“The first person who came forward was a 40-year-old man who lives in California, and he was sitting out in his Southern California home reading a newspaper account of Bishop Dupre, who had become the most vociferous opponent of gay marriage here in Massachusetts,” Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen said on the February 22 edition of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition.” According to Cullen, the man had been involved as a teenager in a lengthy sexual relationship with Dupre in the 1980s. “Seeing the arrogance and hypocrisy of the bishop, it made him look at the relationship differently and he contacted an attorney,” Cullen said.
Far more serious, however, was the news that the second round of audits had been put on hold. As the Baltimore Sun put it a few days after the story broke, “A decision to delay annual compliance audits of dioceses on this matter could compromise any headway church leaders have made in restoring their credibility.”
The flurry of reaction stories about the reported postponement of audits was followed by a long pause until the National Catholic Reporter published the collection of letters between Burke and a number of bishops. The letters triggered stories with headlines like: “Catholic abuse panel in turmoil” (Westchester, New York Journal News), “Panel fears bishops will avert abuse measures” (Newsday), and “Sex-abuse panel assails U.S. bishops” (Los Angeles Times).
Many of the 35 or so bishops whose letters ended up on the National Catholic Reporter web site were unhappy about the board’s pressure on them. The Denver Post’s Eric Gorski published a lengthy piece on May 12 focusing on a letter to Anne Burke that Denver archbishop Charles Chaput and his assistant had fired off to Burke on March 30. Chaput complained that the lay board “assumed the worst motives on the part of the bishops despite the progress that has already been made. Your language is designed to offend and contains implicit threats that are, to put it mildly, inappropriate for anyone in your professional position.”
Chaput argued that audits were necessary only every three or four years and that the lay review board was “overstepping its bounds.” He went on: “It is not the [board’s] duty to interpret” the charter adopted by the bishops in 2002 to guarantee uniform national standards of handling accusations of child sexual abuse. “The board is an important advisory board at the service of the bishops. It does not and cannot have supervisory authority.”
Concern that the National Review Board was acting too independently was shared by a number of the bishops. Writing to express the views of all of Connecticut and Rhode Island’s bishops, Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford wrote on February 12 that the bishops were “troubled” that the review board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection appeared to be “expanding their competence, responsibilities, activities, and studies in a dynamic of autonomy.”
It was New York’s Cardinal Eagan who apparently spelled out the strategy of delaying the second audit. An early February letter from Eagan was also included in the file.
After the story appeared, it became clear that senior bishops disagreed about how to proceed. For example, Anne Burke told Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times on May 12 that Cardinal Roger Mahoney had told her that the bishops of California had threatened, in response to Cardinal Eagan’s proposal to delay discussion until November, to boycott a meeting of the bishops in June.
Mahony told the National Catholic Reporter on May 13 that attempts to delay the second round of audits were short-sighted and that most American bishops support annual audits. “In Dallas (some bishops) voted for this reluctantly, and never did like this involvement of any review review board or a national office or anything else,” Mahony said. “They feel, we got a report out of them, we got John Jay, now let’s get rid of the whole thing.”
Mahony said the leaders of the bishops’ conference were at first reluctant to reschedule their Denver meeting to include discussions of the debate over the audits. First the bishops’ administrative committee offered to set up a two hour-long discussion on the Saturday afternoon preceding the meeting. Mahony told the Reporter that he pushed harder and the bishops’ conference would now discuss the meeting on Monday afternoon and evening and all day Tuesday.
“We’ve agreed on everything,” Burke told the Sun Times’ Falsani after the agreement hammered out in Chicago officially put the second round of audits on the Denver agenda. “You can conclude from that that the National Review Board is happy today.”
So once again, when the bishops gather, the whole world will be watching.•