Catholic bishops' lawyer thinks more credit deserved for efforts at countering sex abuse

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) -- From the first major clergy sex abuse scandal nearly 18 years ago, attorney Mark Chopko has publicly defended and privately advised America's Roman Catholic bishops.

He's been consulted on ''hundreds and hundreds'' of abuse cases through the years. But he's never been through a crisis as all-consuming as this one. Since January, the waves of scandal have taken ''110 percent of my time,'' says Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

An articulate defender of the church, Chopko says he's frustrated because the bishops don't get enough credit for steps already taken to address molestation claims. At the same time, the mistakes of some bishops are beyond explanation, and he admits more needs to be done to deal with abusers. He also questions actions of lawyers on both sides of the conflict.

''This has been a very difficult period of my life and I don't expect it to get any better soon,'' he said. ''It's just been, personally, very dismaying to watch all this unfold.''

He complains that news media often blur the fact that ''the vast majority'' of priestly abuse incidents now being reported occurred prior to the early 1990s, when U.S. bishops stopped relying mainly on therapists and agreed to tighten procedures on suspension, abuse reporting and reassignment.

''I'm angry that we can't seem to tell the story as it exists and that all the good we do goes unreported,'' Chopko says.

Victims' advocates, however, say there's a natural time lag in reporting because minors usually aren't psychologically strong enough to confront their abusers until years later.

And Chopko admits there's been inconsistency in carrying out the bishops' agreed-upon procedures for handling abuse cases.

The bottom line is that parishioners need assurance their bishops ''are dealing with abuse aggressively,'' Chopko says, and the prelates' meeting next month in Dallas must be the time for action. Chopko is working with the bishops' committee charged with crafting a new national policy on sex abuse.

''People, legitimately, should look to Dallas to send a clear signal that things are different in the church, and will be different .... As a parent, I have an obligation to make sure parents can trust the church,'' says Chopko, a father of four who was the only parent advising American cardinals and bishops during their Vatican summit last month.

A Cornell law school graduate, Chopko left a government job to join the bishops' Washington headquarters staff in 1984, just before the original sex abuse scandal broke in Louisiana. Three years later, at age 34, he became head of the department, which now has seven lawyers.

After several crises in the 1990s, ''there was a tacit assumption among the faithful that nobody would be allowed in any assignment of any kind who had sexual contact with a minor,'' Chopko says. ''Obviously, that wasn't always the case.''

Is the answer to have the bishops require ''zero tolerance'' for abusers -- expelling past abusers along with those who are accused in the future?

''I think it's already happened,'' says Chopko, noting the many priests who have been removed from duty because of old abuse accusations since the national scandal erupted in the Boston Archdiocese in January. Similarly, he says, bishops now routinely refer abuse allegations to police, whether or not state law requires this.

Zero tolerance may be hard for priests to accept if they ''made a mistake 30 years ago and have performed flawlessly since,'' says Chopko, but secular law will protect bishops if suspended priests attempt legal challenges.

''Priests can't sue their superiors,'' he says.

While church leaders sometimes appear to resist answering subpoenas or making depositions in abuse lawsuits, Chopko does not think prosecutors' tactics generally threaten the church's religious freedom -- so long as the confidentiality of sacramental confession is not violated.

''If supervisors take the risk'' of sheltering an abusive employee, including a priest, ''they're on the hook for that risk,'' he says. ''The constitution can't save you.''

But Chopko also thinks the law must be fair in assessing blame.

He favors the Missouri Supreme Court's standard of ''intentional failure to supervise,'' which means an employee's supervisor ''really did know'' about the risk, he says.

He dismisses as ''grandstanding'' lawsuits filed against the Vatican and is certain that judges will throw out such bids. The reason: Church law says only local bishops or religious superiors are responsible for disciplining priests, and under American law, ''courts can't say what the structure of a religion is or impose structures it doesn't have.''

Victims' advocates estimate that Catholic dioceses have paid out $1 billion or more in judgments for sex abuse claims over the years.

But Chopko says the figure is lower -- he puts it at $300 million to $350 million -- and says ''perhaps half'' of that was covered by insurance. He says church attorneys face the tough balancing act between victims' ''just demands'' and the church's ministry needs.

And when reflecting on years of conflict with victims' lawyers, Chopko wonders about the tactics on both sides.

Plaintiffs' lawyers may keep victims from meeting a bishop, fearing they might ''see him as a caring person, and there goes an eight-figure lawsuit,'' he says.

Meanwhile, bishops' attorneys may advise, ''don't admit anything,'' when typical victims ''want the church to acknowledge what happened, and an assurance that it will never happen again.''

''The presence of lawyers, on both sides, often makes things worse,'' he says.


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