Bishop Accountability

Nebraska bishop refuses full cooperation with sex abuse prevention measures

By Joe Ruff
Associated Press, carried in the (San Diego CA) North Country Times
February 18, 2004

LINCOLN, Neb. ---- At a time when Roman Catholic bishops are submitting their dioceses to unprecedented scrutiny because of the clerical sex abuse crisis, the leader of about 90,000 faithful in Nebraska is among the hierarchy's few public dissenters.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln won't require background checks of all current employees and volunteers who have regular contact with children. Nor will Bruskewitz let his diocese participate in a study designed to tally every priestly abuse case in the country since 1950.

For these actions, Bruskewitz' diocese was recently declared out of compliance with the toughened sex abuse policy that American bishops approved overwhelmingly in 2002.

"Every diocesan bishop does not have to follow the (new abuse policy) to be in compliance with what the church is asking," said the Rev. Mark Huber, a spokesman for the bishop.

Huber was noting that the Vatican approved the bishops' new plan for handling abuse accusations against priests, making it church law for the United States. But Rome didn't act on other sections of the bishops' policy, such as conducting background checks or researching abuse.

So, even though nearly all the other dioceses are following the policy, there's nothing forcing Bruskewitz to do likewise.

Bruskewitz, 68, declined to be interviewed. But in a statement explaining his reasons for not participating in the church abuse study, the bishop said it was likely to be slanderous.

Also, he said, "the reporting of the study does not promise to place into context the number of priests who did not commit sexual abuse of minors."

The first public rumblings of Bruskewitz's refusal to cooperate with the national bishops' group came on Jan. 6.

An internal church audit, overseen by the bishops' new Office of Child and Youth Protection, showed the Lincoln Diocese was among only 10 percent of the country's 195 dioceses that had not fully complied with the bishops' recommendations.

The audit faulted the diocese for failing to conduct background checks on all employees and for not cooperating with the sex abuse study.

The audit also suggested that the diocese provide more guidance to its sexual abuse review board, and involve the board at the initial stages after a molestation claim is received.

The audit did credit the diocese with making a videotape on sexual abuse available to all personnel who have regular contact with children, and for publicizing its standards of conduct for diocesan employees and volunteers.

Soon after the audit was released, Bruskewitz said he would not cooperate with the tally of abuse cases nationwide, set for release Feb. 27.

The bishop contends the study will be flawed because it relies on self-reporting by dioceses. Bruskewitz also fears the report will include inconclusive and anonymous allegations, and he noted many of the accused are dead and cannot defend themselves, Huber said. The bishop blames divergence from Catholic moral teaching for the abuse crisis.

Lincoln is one of only a few dioceses in the country that may not take part in the study. A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, said Lincoln's input will not be essential.

"The study will be very valid and able to say what was the nature and scope of the problem, which is what it set out to do," Maniscalco said.

Huber said parishes within the Lincoln Diocese can voluntarily conduct background checks of employees and volunteers if they choose, but pastors could decide some people who have worked for years without complaint do not need a background check.

However, all new workers and volunteers who work with children will undergo a review of their background.

The diocese has long been known for its conservative bent. Girls, for example, are not allowed to serve at the altar, a practice that has become common around the country. Bruskewitz believes that having boys serve at the altar encourages vocations to the priesthood, Huber said.

Bruskewitz also welcomed to the diocese the U.S. branch of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which built a seminary and began classes in 2000. The fraternity emphasizes the Latin rite Mass ---- the standard before the Second Vatican Council ---- in which the priest speaks Latin and faces away from the congregation.

In 1996, Bruskewitz threatened to excommunicate Lincoln Catholics who belong to certain groups that he considered perilous to the faith, including the Masons and church reform advocates Call to Action.

Jim McShane, a Call to Action member who was targeted by the bishop's excommunication threats, said Bruskewitz's noncompliance with the audit and survey are typical.

"The American bishops are trying very hard to alleviate any concerns people may have about the safety of their children, and this bishop has decided 'nobody can make me do it,"' McShane said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Bruskewitz's stance lacks compassion for abuse victims and people who are concerned about the issue.

"How on earth could a victim feel comfortable reporting to a person like Bruskewitz, who so vigorously resists even these baby steps?" Clohessy said.

But the Rev. Paul Witt, pastor at St. Mary's, said the diocese has not had a case of church sexual abuse in at least 20 years, and he trusts the bishop to protect children.

"The general feeling is, stay on it," Witt said. "We certainly don't want even one iota of one more incident happening."


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