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Troubled Church

June 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The opening of the Annual Conference of American Bishops comes one year after the organization vowed to tackle clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. But today’s opening meeting in St. Louis, attended by some 300 bishops, was overshadowed by new controversies.

On Monday, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien was arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident. O’Brien resigned yesterday. Earlier this month, O’Brien had struck a deal with a prosecutor to avoid indictment, admitting he sheltered priests accused of sexual abuse.

Also this week, the man charged with monitoring the bishops’ compliance with abuse reforms, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, resigned under pressure. Keating had compared those bishops who were uncooperative in the clerical cleanup to the Mafia.

MEMBER OF CLERGY: Stir up your mighty power Lord…

RAY SUAREZ: A year ago when the bishops met in Dallas, the Catholic Church was reeling in the midst of a sexual abuse crisis. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the Bishops Conference, opened last year’s session with a promise: to take action to restore Catholics’ faith in their leadership.

BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Both what we have done and what we have failed to do has contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and Church personnel.

RAY SUAREZ: Six months earlier in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law and his archdiocese had been accused of ignoring the abuse of minors by John Geoghan, a convicted pedophile priest. Eventually, Cardinal Law resigned.

By the spring of 2002, New York Cardinal Edward Egan also faced accusations he failed to discipline priests. Reports of incidents of clerical sexual abuse sprang up across the country, with an estimated 3,000 American priests facing allegations. More than 250 resigned or were removed from the ministry for sexual abuse, along with four U.S. bishops.

To address the crisis, the bishops called for: a zero- tolerance policy for priests who commit “even a single act of sexual abuse, past, present, or future”; for transparency in the settlement of sexual abuse cases; and the appointment of a national review board, comprised of lay Catholics, to monitor compliance.

In the year since, courts have ordered legal settlements of millions of dollars for some victims. Many dioceses have said they’re struggling under the financial strain from the lawsuits and lost contributions. And the National Review Board has announced that one-third of the nation’s 195 dioceses have yet to file required reports detailing the extent of sexual abuse in their parishes.

After discussing routine matters during their open session today, several bishops spoke with reporters. Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis George said the bishops had lived up to their promise to remove abusers from the ministry.

CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE: But as far as I know, every bishop went back and went through the records, and removed from ministry anyone who was credibly accused of this. I don’t know any other group that has done that. I don’t know whether journalists have done that, I don’t know whether politicians have done that. I don’t know whether sports directors have done that.

RAY SUAREZ: This afternoon the bishops went behind closed doors to discuss the sexual abuse crisis and other matters.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, I am joined by the Most Reverend George Niederauer, bishop of Salt Lake City and a member of the ad-hoc committee on sexual abuse formed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Barbara Blaine, president and founder of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests; the Reverend Tom Reese, editor of America, a national weekly Catholic magazine; and Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Bishop Niederauer, A year ago the Church gave itself the assignment of reporting allegations to the police, removing abusive priests from their ministries, and reporting on the extent and cause of this problem. How have you done in the past year?

MOST REV. GEORGE NIEDERAUER: I think we’ve done very well. I think I can take my own experience, that’s the most immediate for me. We went back through the records to 1950, we found that there had been allegations against a number of priests, I reported every detail of every accusation and accused that I knew to the Utah Child Protective Services Agency, no matter when it had been reported so that I made sure that no, there was no fact my office knew about this whole matter that the state agency charged with the protection of children and young people didn’t know as well.

And I think there were a lot of bishops who did exactly that same sort of thing. What we were most severely pledged to do and most strenuously pledged to do was to make sure that perpetrators were removed permanently from ministry, and I believe we’ve done that, and to try to study the extent of this problem and the causes of it — those studies are going on right now — and to make sure that we most of all, most important of all probably, that we reach out to victims and their families.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Appleby, looking back over the same year, how do you rate the Church’s efforts?

SCOTT APPLEBY: I think that the procedures and offices that were put into place by the bishops, that is the National Review Board and the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People, are good steps in the right direction.

It’s true that about 200 or more priests have been removed from ministry who are accused credibly of sexual abuse, that’s obviously a good move. I think the Church has not been as strong, frankly, in dialogue with survivors and also, even more importantly, because they have made efforts with the survivors, the laity in general is still struggling, angry, frustrated, and hasn’t heard much explanation or theological reflection or preaching in particular on the various dimensions of this crisis spiritually, morally, the logically. And they’re crying for explanations and for direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Father Reese, maybe you could respond to Professor Appleby and also give your own review of the Church’s response to its assignment over the last year.

REV. THOMAS REESE: Well, I think that most bishops have got with the program in terms of reporting any accusations of abuse to the police, removing abusive priests from ministry, so that they can’t harm another child. But now we’re in the process of taking a look at that. The lay review board has sent out auditors to every diocese in the country to find out, are they with the program? Are they doing what they promised to do?

And at the end of this year, there will be a report and every diocese will be listed by name, and it will say what they have done and what they have failed to do so far in implementing the charter. And I think that’s when we’ll really know what has been done and what hasn’t been done.

RAY SUAREZ: And Barbara Blaine, as far as you’ve been able to tell, have diocese around the country been responsive to these requests, like Father Reese just described, and have they been following their own guidelines laid down for them a year ago in Dallas?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, at the end of the conference in Dallas, our main criticism was that the bishops had no mechanism to police them in place. And their response was, oh, yes, we have this independent lay review board.

And as soon as the lay review board finally got together and was ready to begin a study, all the bishops were asked to participate in turning in a questionnaire, and immediately some of the bishops began meddling in that. And then we all know what happened with Governor Keating speaking out. And then he’s forced to resign. And so it certainly begs the question as to whether or not that lay review board is in fact going to be allowed to act independently.

And across the country, we feel that the atmosphere has gone way back from one of transparency and openness. It’s really back to one of silence and secrecy. We have bishops refusing to turn over documents to law enforcement, to grand juries, to subpoenas that are issued by courts of law, and both criminal and civil attorneys. We have bishops refusing to release the names of the perpetrators.

We still have victims that are bound by confidentiality and gag orders, and we just believe that those things continue this atmosphere of silence and secrecy. And the problem is that what’s at stake is that in this type of climate that is where this evil has festered for decades.

And if we continue in that climate, our fear is that children will still be abused and that the victims who are out there still suffering in shame and embarrassment and guilt will never feel free to come forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Bishop, you just her Barbara Blaine list that rundown of particulars. Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, said it was his frustration with what he felt was obstruction from bishops in various dioceses that led him to react the way he did and eventually resign under pressure. Have bishops been forthcoming as they could be?

MOST REV. GEORGE NIEDERAUER: Well, I’m not in charge of the whole national operation. But my sense is that this audit of all the dioceses is a work in progress. I think that it isn’t a failure yet. I think it’s going to be a success. I think it’s very successful at this point. I think that sometimes there will be misunderstandings, there will be controversies. I think we’ve tried to work them out through the committee, through especially Kathleen McChesney’s Office for Children and Youth Protection, which is just on a regular basis is dealing with dioceses, answering their questions, giving them guidelines according to which to make their preparations for their audits.

We just had in our region in the Rocky Mountain area last week had an overnight, in which the bishops in the area brought along some of their own key personnel and were trained in matters such as putting up safe environment programs, doing background checks, setting up our own local review boards — each diocese is supposed to have its own review board as well as the national — all sorts of different kinds of outreach which can eventually, I think, come together to make a consistent and accountable program. But it is, as I say, a work in progress.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Bishop, are bishops used to answering questions and requests for documents from lay people? Is this a big adjustment for the members of your Conference?

MOST REV. GEORGE NIEDERAUER: I think it is a big adjustment. That’s true. I think that that’s often true of church structures. I think it’s true of other agencies we can think of in other dimensions of life. But I think we’re learning. I think we’re probably learning at different rates sometimes. But I think we are responding. I think there is good will. I think there is an attempt to come up to speed on it and I really think that we need to continue our efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: Scott Appleby, what’s the significance of the resignation of Frank Keating?

SCOTT APPLEBY: I hope it’s a bump on the road. When we look back at the report that Father Reese mentioned at the end of this year, I thought the comments of Governor Keating were premature. You have to have someone in that position, who is willing to speak out to the media, to go public when bishops are not complying.

But we’re in the middle of a process, and it’s not finished yet. And I think that remark was premature, and that it didn’t contribute in any way to nudging the bishops along to do what they promised to do. The last thing you want to do is to insult the bishop publicly that way if your goal is to move the process forward. If your goal is to deepen the tension and the frustration and have people bickering with one another, then that would be the kind of comment you’d make now.

There will be a time for open, direct public statements from that review board if the bishops are not in compliance. But the time is not yet. One other point: The bishops have not acted across the board in the capacity as pastors and teachers, and they can be criticized for that. And they should be grateful to the Barbara Blaines and to the survivors for keeping the heat on.

But one has to recognize that the bishops also have to exercise stewardship over the Church and its social services, its concern for the poor, and education, and they are facing all kinds of lawsuits from all kinds of directions, most of them credible.

But keep in mind that the litigators are also in it for their fees, and the Church faces terrible losses in every way. So caution and making sure the questionnaire is sufficient and precise is a prudent thing. It doesn’t mean that they’re backing away. The time for public dispute may come at the end of the year, but we hope not.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Father Reese, you heard Barbara Blaine express some misgivings about the response of the Church to the questions of the national review board and about the independence of that lay board now that Frank Keating has been pressured to resign. What, in your view, should happen now so that it can move forward, do its work, be vigilant, and still be credible to the bishops?

REV. THOMAS REESE: Yes. I was disappointed that Frank Keating resigned. I would have liked to have seen him stay until the end of the year when the studies were being issued, and then he could have used his rich vocabulary to criticize the bishops who weren’t with the program.

But I think what the committee now has to do, they obviously have to get a new chair. There’s very good people on that committee, independent people. Frank Keating was involved in selecting the people on that committee. There are people with national reputations, Leon Panetta, who was chief of staff in the White House, Bob Bennett, an appeals court judge from Illinois. These are not people that are lapdogs of the bishops that can be pushed around. I think they will continue to show their independence and I think, ultimately, their report will have credibility.

RAY SUAREZ: So Barbara Blaine, where does that leave the lay people? Have you been heard regularly by the leaders in your local diocese, are there open channels for your group and for others to talk to your clerical leadership?

BARBARA BLAINE: I am from the archdiocese of Chicago, and the lay people there have been rallying around to support victims. One of the major concerns that victims in Chicago have is that Cardinal George has made statements that he’s releasing victims from their confidentiality orders, but he hasn’t followed through with giving them court documents or legal documents that would actually free them, and enable them to speak. He also hasn’t released all the names of all the perpetrators. He claims that they’re out there, you just have to look for them.

And from our perspective, that just continues this atmosphere of secrecy and silence. And we just believe that it’s time to come clean. You said you were going to be open and transparent, then let’s live up to it. And the bishops are not doing that.

On the other hand, lay people seem to be incredibly supportive, they are supporting victims in asking for the release of information; they are also supporting victims financially in making donations to SNAP and to help victims who need financial assistance to pay for basics like paying for the babysitter to watch their children when they go for therapy; to pay for their therapy.

Unfortunately we’ve seen many dioceses, who step back from their commitments to provide therapy; they establish arbitrary numbers, like they’ll say you can go for therapy for three months or you can go for six months. And they stop therapy in the middle of – or they stop paying when victims need therapy. They also are frequently demanding that victims release their records so that the diocese can have access to their counseling records.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me jump right in there and ask the bishop to respond. You’ve mentioned that you’re just one bishop out of many diocesan bishops across the country. But is it a lack of national standards, is it a lack of national norms that makes it possible to have one response in Fond Du Lac and another one in Boston and another one in South Florida? Are there some national norms that are helping to address some of the problems that Barbara Blaine just noted?

MOST REV. GEORGE NIEDERAUER: I think that’s where we’re starting from; 195 dioceses and bishops, separate and independent from each other, all accountable directly to Rome. What we’re trying to do through the charter, I think, is work our way toward some agreed upon norms, and I think we will do that once we’ve taken a look at the scope of the problem, the nature of the problem, the causes, the context, what are some of the directions in which we should go.

I think we’re going to be able to work much more in the future toward some best practices. I think just sharing what we do with each other and doing that through the national office, that Kathleen McChesney heads up, will in time lead us to a set of standard practices.

RAY SUAREZ: Bishop George Niederauer, guests, thank you all.