Catholic bishops won't talk much about abuse in public, but crisis isn't over

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

America's Roman Catholic bishops will meet next week, and a glance at the agenda shows the prelates are in no mood to talk publicly about the problem still tormenting the church molesters in the priesthood.

The gathering that starts next Thursday in St. Louis stands in sharp contrast to the bishops' groundbreaking meeting last year in Dallas.

There, abuse victims and other lay Catholics were granted an unprecedented opportunity to assail the bishops for decades of mishandling abuse claims and ignoring victims' anguish.

At St. Louis, bishops will monopolize the microphones. Victims will gather 14 blocks away for their own national assembly.

At Dallas, the bishops devoted the entire meeting to what was repeatedly called the worst crisis the American church had ever faced. They passed a toughened sex abuse policy (that was later revised somewhat).

In St. Louis, the bishops' committee on abuse will give a report, but otherwise the public agenda covers workaday matters like catechism programs and directives for deacons.

The most intense discussions will occur behind closed doors. Two-thirds of the meeting is being spent in executive sessions that bar Catholic and non-Catholic observers, making the gathering one of the most private for bishops in recent decades.

The executive sessions are partly for ''prayer and reflection,'' but also will ponder the proposal to summon the first national ''plenary council'' since 1884 a special meeting where bishops and other Catholics would examine the church's problems.

A third of the bishops are said to support this radical idea, an indication of how serious church leaders think fallout from the abuse crisis is.

The other important doors-closed topic will be the ongoing abuse problem itself. Most action has shifted to the 195 individual dioceses, for instance Louisville, which agreed this week to pay $25.7 million to settle suits from 243 victims.

But the national bishops' conference seems certain to air problems with the two new agencies it set up to monitor anti-abuse efforts. One is the Office of Child and Youth Protection, part of the bishops' national staff, which is run by former FBI official Kathleen McChesney.

Last month, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., wrote a parishioner that McChesney's job performance ''leaves more than a few bishops for whom she technically works in a state of perplexity.'' He offered no specifics.

McChesney is guiding dioceses on new ''safe environment'' programs training church workers, parents and students to prevent, identify and respond to abuse. She also has hired a firm led by another former FBI official, William Gavin, to audit whether each diocese is complying with the reform policies. The process starts this month, and a report that names bishops is due late in the year.

The second agency under the reform policy is the independent National Review Board. Made up of 13 prominent lay Catholics, it supervises McChesney's office and is handling a couple of investigations into the crisis.

For one, the review board has hired New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice to research the extent and patterns of abuse with data provided by bishops. But some prelates, worried about the material being used in lawsuits against the church, haven't provided answers pending the St. Louis meeting.

Review board chairman Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, said McChesney and representatives of the review board and John Jay will be on hand to field bishops' questions. But he makes no apologies.

''We are only doing what the bishops themselves instructed us to do and what's necessary to restore the faith of the faithful,'' he said. ''The criticism is either misguided, or uninformed, or both.''

The format of the St. Louis gathering has sparked opposition from some Catholic observers, including Russell Shaw, a layman who was formerly the staff spokesman for the U.S. bishops.

Writing in Our Sunday Visitor, a conservative newspaper, Shaw said that bishops promised transparency and an ''open book'' last year, but in St. Louis will revert to secrecy on ''the truly important questions.''

The bishops ''need badly to be seen collectively and in public acting as responsible leaders,'' he said, adding that lay Catholics have a right to know what's happening.

Another conservative layman, editor Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine, thinks the closed doors are especially unwise in discussing a plenary council a meeting where the whole point is ''to demonstrate to the Catholic laity that the bishops are taking vigorous steps to get at the root causes of the problem.''

But whatever the damage to the bishops' image might be, Hudson sympathizes with their momentary preference for executive sessions: ''They're simply exhausted and want to let their hair down, out of the public eye.''

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