A New Reality for U.S. Bishops
Abuse Cases Loom at Event

By Carol Eisenberg
Newsday [St. Louis MO]
June 22, 2003

St. Louis - If there was any Roman Catholic prelate in America who harbored the hope that he and his brethren might return to the congenial atmosphere and deferential media coverage that once characterized their past gatherings, he was disabused of that idea at their semi-annual meeting here last week.

To many bishops' surprise and consternation, The Long Lent of 2002, as many refer to the sex abuse scandals, continued to cast a shadow over what was supposed to be a quiet meeting. No public discussion of abuse had been planned. But those plans were hastily scrapped in the face of renewed media scrutiny of the church's track record on the reforms adopted at a meeting a year ago in Dallas, which intensified after the resignation early in the week of the leader of a lay oversight group who had likened some bishops' secretiveness to the Mafia, and the felony arrest of a beleaguered Arizona bishop in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident.

"All of those developments in the last few weeks have combined to convey an undeniable message to the bishops: There's no escaping scrutiny," said R. Scott Appleby, a Catholic commentator and professor of religious history at Notre Dame University. "And the process is going to go forward. Those who are not in compliance are going to be held up for criticism."

Appleby said that what happened this past week is only a taste of what's yet to come, as a lay oversight panel prepares a year-end report that will examine the progress in every diocese in the country - or lack thereof - based on the findings of independent auditors.

"Whether it's a weeklong news story or daylong depends on what they've done," he said.

In a very real sense, the bishops got just what they bargained for by empowering a lay panel to oversee their work.

"They set up a system in Dallas where public scrutiny was the only form of accountability," said David Gibson, author of the soon-to-be released "The Coming Catholic Church" about the crisis. "In essence, they've invited the news media to be the guarantors of this policy by not setting up a mechanism to punish or censure a brother bishop."

If some bishops didn't get that before, they got that last week. And so they added a public report on their progress, and made statements rededicating themselves to the fulfillment of the year-old reforms.

"A monumental effort" has been made to fulfill the promises made in Dallas, said Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, chairman of the bishop's ad hoc committee on sex abuse, delivering a progress report yesterday.

"We have made a pledge to our people and to the people of this nation and especially to the vulnerable ones, and we will keep that pledge," Flynn said.

Even prelates who had raised initial concerns about a national study on the scope of abuse related to issues of privacy and liability expressed support for the effort - and the lay review board overseeing it - after emerging from a three-hour closed-door meeting Thursday with several members of the lay panel.

"Piece by piece, we're beginning to work things out," said Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York. "Many things were clarified by the researchers from John Jay College, and I think some things remain to be clarified. But my sense is, we're moving forward."

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the conference, suggested that the bishops be judged on the distance they have traveled in the year since Dallas, rather than by the inevitable bumps encountered along the way.

"A year ago, we didn't have such a dialogue" between bishops and a lay oversight group, he said. "The exchange that has taken place over the last year, in my humble estimation, is nothing less than miraculous because an entity that never existed has been called into existence, and it has established a relationship with the body of bishops that had no precedent."

Gregory acknowledged that "bishops have been criticized sometimes harshly - sometimes because we deserved it and sometimes in an undeserved fashion. But that's the nature of life in our society."

Victims' advocates, however, expressed skepticism that new dialogue would result in tangible change.

"Far from being miraculous, I would suggest that conversations between bishops and lay people about sexually abused children are long overdue," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which was conducting its first national conference at a hotel several blocks away.

Many lay Catholics, however, appeared gratified by the mending of fences between lay panel members and the bishops, and expressed confidence that the panel would continue to pursue its mission with independence.

"I think the lay board is going to have tremendous moral persuasion, if not actual power," said Linda Pieczynski, a spokeswoman for Call to Action, a lay advocacy group.

"These are people who want the church to survive. They want the church to get better and they want to protect children.

"And because of the media scrutiny, the bishops have no choice but to let them do their work without interference. And then, they are going to have to deal with the results, whether they want to or not."


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