Bishops Uneasy on Whom to Protect

By Laurie Goodstein
The New York Times
Downloaded June 13, 2003

In Roman Catholic dioceses from New York to California, many bishops are still torn between their public promises to resolve the child sexual abuse scandal with openness and accountability and their instinct to protect their assets, priests and reputations.

Last month, the bishops of California, led by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, met in private and unanimously passed a resolution saying they would not fill out the surveys for a study that the American bishops themselves had commissioned to assess the extent of the abuse problem in the church.

In New York, Cardinal Edward M. Egan told a council of priests that he would not reveal the names of priests accused of abuse or how their cases had been resolved.

In each case, these bishops eventually agreed to release the information, Cardinal Egan in the glare of publicity and the California bishops under pressure from a national review board of Catholic laypeople. The board, led by former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, was formed last year by the bishops at their meeting in Dallas and given responsibility to study the causes of the scandal, make recommendations on child protection programs and help keep the bishops accountable.

Though some bishops have responded to the survey, distributed this spring, others, like those in California, have raised questions or asked for revisions.

"Those bishops who are not cooperating must start acting like pastors and shepherds of their flock, and stop acting like risk assessment officers of insurance companies," said Robert S. Bennett, a lawyer in Washington who leads the review board's task force evaluating the causes of the crisis. "In the church there has been a culture of secrecy, and it has gotten them in a lot of trouble. And the time has come where they have got to understand that it will not work anymore, and that they must be open, they must be transparent and they must be accountable."

At their meeting in Dallas last year, when the abuse issue that bishops wrestled with for two decades had exploded into an intractable scandal, the bishops passed a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." In it, they committed themselves to following a national policy for judging accusations of abuse, removing molesters from the ministry and preventing abuse.

Despite the imposition of a national policy, the bishops who are to gather at their semiannual meeting on Thursday in St. Louis have interpreted the new rules in each of their 195 dioceses in their own ways. It is hard to gauge the compliance of what are essentially 195 separate governments - the review board has just begun what it is calling an audit to do that - but it is clear that the record is uneven.

Each diocese is supposed to have its own abuse review board in which a majority of members are not the bishops' employees or allies. In Metuchen, N.J., Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski appointed an abuse victim who belongs to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a group disdained by many bishops for its assertive victims' advocacy. In Arlington, Va., review board members resigned when Bishop Paul S. Loverde disregarded their recommendation to remove an accused abuser from ministry.

In the diocese of Orange, Calif., Joelle Casteix, who said she had been abused by a lay teacher at her Catholic high school in the 1980's, was invited to join the reconstituted sexual abuse advisory board, long known as the Sensitive Issues Committee.

Ms. Casteix, who runs a marketing agency, attended six meetings and found, she said: "There was open discussion about how to make sure documents did not get into the hands of D.A.'s and plaintiffs' lawyers. There was active discussion about the statute of limitations because they did not want any more victims coming forward and suing." In December, she resigned from the board, citing disillusionment.

Some bishops have met with victims and listened to their accounts of pain and betrayal, while others have refused to do so because of litigation. Some have cooperated with prosecutors while others have withheld files and information.

"I believe the bishops have tried to be as open and as forthright as possible," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview this week. "Are there individual cases where people would disagree or individuals would say they wish that more information had been given? I suspect that is the case. But I think the bishops learned that the more forthright you are, the better off it is for all parties concerned."

Bishop Gregory, who spearheaded the charter's passage, said that bishops were aware that they would be judged by their colleagues' performance.

"We are judged by our worst-case scenario, not our best," he said.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America, said, "I think the bishops are committed to keeping the abusive priests away from kids, but they really don't want all their dirty laundry exposed."

In September, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore posted on the archdiocese's Web site the names of 56 priests credibly accused of abuse in Baltimore and the $5.6 million the archdiocese had paid in settlements, legal fees and counseling. Cardinal Keeler urged anyone with information to come forward to the archdiocese. About 60 more victims and family members have done so, Steve Kearney, director of communications, said.

Cardinal Keeler, who declined to be interviewed, quietly tried to convince his brother bishops of the advantages of disclosure, several church officials said. But very few dioceses have provided an equally thorough accounting, according to interviews with many church officials and victims' advocates. Dioceses in Chicago and Belleville, Ill., were cited as thorough.

Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, the Catholic reform group founded at the height of the crisis last year, said, "The fact that the leadership Cardinal Keeler showed on this issue was not emulated by others has probably been the single biggest disappointment in this."

Voice of the Faithful has pressed bishops to open the church's accounting and decision-making to laypeople. On that platform it has grown since December to 180 affiliates across the nation from fewer than 100, Mr. Post said. Eight bishops have banned the group from meeting on church property in their dioceses, but one of them, Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, reversed his prohibition on May 1, saying he found the group members to be sincere and loyal Catholics.

Group members say the church hierarchy has shown little interest in giving the laypeople greater say. In Philadelphia, where Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua will soon retire, the Voice of the Faithful chapter sent a letter to the pope's representative in Washington, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, in March. They invited the apostolic nuncio to "communicate with members of the Church in Philadelphia as you prepare to make your recommendation" to succeed the cardinal. The chapter said it never got a response.

"The message it sends to me is we apparently don't count for very much," Walter J. Fox, a Voice chapter officer in Philadelphia, said.

The apprehension of the California bishops over the survey is one gauge of institutional resistance to change. The study is being conducted by academic researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. They mailed every bishop an extensive survey asking for information about abusive priests in their diocese. The priests and victims are not identified by name, and the results of the study will be cumulative and will not offer a breakdown of the results by diocese. But the California bishops said they feared the information could be subpoenaed or inadvertently released, which could leave the bishops vulnerable for having violated California's privacy laws, said Edward E. Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, which represents that state's 12 dioceses.

The impact of the last year and a half of turmoil also varies from diocese to diocese. Donations are down in Boston, where the scandal started, and up in Baltimore.

In the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., which had a big sexual abuse scandal several years ago, Bishop Daniel F. Walsh disclosed the diocese's finances on its Web site, and gave his finance council veto power over his decisions, said Frank J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a Washington-based group.

"Where there seems to be good, strong pastoral leadership, openness and high levels of credibility and trust, the people are responding," he said. "And where they're not, the situation seems to be deteriorating."


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