Don't Expect Real Reform from Bishops" Panel on Abuse

By David G. Clohessy
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 16, 2015

Carlson.jpg "Archbishop Carlson did not call 911 one time in 24 years," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, condemning the recent statements and actions of Archbishop Robert Carlson on clergy sex abuse cases during a vigil on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, outside the Cathedral Basilica in the Central West End. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

It was a hot June in a Midwestern city, during a meeting of 250 U.S. Catholic bishops, that the new, unprecedented church panel was announced. It was hailed as a ground-breaking move that would herald a new era in the church’s continuing clergy child sex abuse and cover-up scandal. More specifically, the panel was to address whether bishops were — or were not — following church abuse policies.

I’m not talking about St. Louis in 2015, when the church hierarchy’s latest shiny new reform plan was a new tribunal to consider whether bishops endangered kids by concealing crimes.

I’m talking about Dallas in 2002, when the church hierarchy’s latest shiny new reform was the creation of a National Review Board. The NRB was to be a watchdog. It was to ride herd on recalcitrant prelates. It was to be a mechanism that would ensure accountability.

But quickly, it became — and remains — a lapdog, not a watchdog. Our fear, of course, is that the new papal tribunal will do so as well.

Take a look at the NRB’s membership.

At first, it was headed by former Gov. Frank Keating, an independent, outspoken, high-profile ex-prosecutor. He was, however, forced out when he suggested some bishops were acting like Mafia dons.

His successor was Nicholas Cafardi, a low-profile church and civil lawyer. As a former U.S. Attorney, Keating investigated and prosecuted criminal cases. Carfardi, on the other hand, represented a bishop and several Roman Catholic religious orders in clergy sex cases.

Keating never got a paycheck from the church. Cafardi is paid by a Catholic university. Keating repeatedly made public comments designed to prod bishops toward real reform. Cafardi did not.

Each of Cafardi’s successors has been more like him than like Keating: quiet, timid, and connected to Catholic institutions. So have the rest of the NRB members.

In December 2004, bishops appointed five new panel members. The outgoing ones included a former White House chief of staff, a former governor, a former legal counsel to the President of the United States, an appeals court judge (and child welfare expert), and the CEO of a major newspaper chain. Their replacements included an educational consultant, a doctor at a Catholic hospital, a magistrate judge and two lawyers — again, less visible, outspoken, accomplished and independent.

Board member Joseph Russoniello’s first public comment about abuse crisis was disturbing. He argued against church officials publicly naming known, admitted, and suspected abusive priests, saying, “My experience tells me it’s easy to make an accusation — especially from a deranged, angry, vengeful person striking out against an authority figure.”

In contrast, consider the public comments of those NRB members who have left:

Keating wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece of his “frustration over the efforts of a small minority of church leaders to obstruct the workings of the board. When we asked valid questions, they gave us few or no answers. Where information and cooperation was called for, we received delay or an outright refusal to help.”

When dozens of bishops wanted to scuttle the entire audit process, Justice Anne Burke commented, “We were manipulated. Those who said bishops were never serious about breaking free from the ... bad judgments of the past will be vindicated.”

Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said, “These dioceses are separate fiefdoms. It’s an almost medieval organization we’re dealing with. Each bishop runs his own fiefdom. The basic culture that developed is, ‘We take care of our own, we really don’t want to open ourselves up to being questioned by others.’ ”

Can anyone recall any clear, tough talk like this from any of the dozens of individuals who have been on the NRB over the past decade? Or can anyone point out even one significant concrete step forward in this scandal that recent NRB members have led or advocated?

“But it’s different now,” some will claim. “This is a new pope and this new Vatican tribunal is a different mechanism.”

Of course, there are differences between a body set up by bishops in one nation and a body set up by Vatican officials in Rome. In theory, it seems better to have a panel established by the pope himself, rather than one tapped by a relatively small group of prelates.

But then again, consider how church officials in Rome deal with this scandal. It’s not like they’ve shown themselves to be courageous pioneers or innovative trend-setters. Far from it. Time and time again, they have ignored or thwarted real efforts to enact real reforms with real teeth.

So some healthy skepticism is in order here. The last “revolutionary” church abuse panel didn’t turn out to be so revolutionary. This one likely won’t either.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.