As bishops meet, uneven progress

Catholic leaders, meeting in St. Louis, continue to be dogged with questions about the handling of abuse cases.

A year after US Catholic bishops committed themselves to a program to protect children against clergy sexual abuse, supporters and critics agree that genuine progress has been made in making the church a safer place.

Yet, as the top church leaders convene in St. Louis Thursday for their semiannual conference, many Catholics lament that key promises made last year by the bishops - for greater openness, accountability, and cooperation with law enforcement - are often not being kept. These, they say, lie at the heart of restoring trust in a church still struggling legally, financially, and politically with one of the worst scandals in its history.

For the bishops, the very public resignation this week of the head of a national lay board that is monitoring their response to the crisis certainly hasn't helped matters. Church officials were hoping to convene their conference behind closed doors, with an agenda that included only a report on the crisis. But the tart exit of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating on Monday once again turns the spotlight on issues dogging the church hierarchy and deals, at least temporarily, a blow to its credibility.

In his letter of resignation, Mr. Keating, a former law-enforcement official with a tell-it-like-it-is style, stood behind his comments that some clerics were resisting cooperating with authorities in ways that resembled the "model of a criminal organization."

Earlier, Keating had accused some bishops of acting like the Mafia in hiding and suppressing information about abusive priests. He clashed in particular with Roger Mahony, the powerful cardinal of Los Angeles, who has balked at elements of a survey commissioned by the National Review Board and has resisted providing files to prosecutors.

Bowing out

Cardinal Mahony called for Keating to resign, and the governor bowed out when it became clear that other board members felt his staying on would be counterproductive.

By most accounts, the lay board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection it helped establish have clearly moved the church forward.

They've initiated studies on the extent of the clergy abuse and on the causes of the crisis, and they've provided guidelines and training on safe-environment programs for schools and parishes.

This month, 50 former FBI agents are fanning out to audit the 195 dioceses' compliance with promised child-protection policies and programs. A full audit report, which is to name any dioceses not in compliance, will be issued by the end of the year.

"As a whole, the church is stronger and healthier and safer," acknowledges David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "But sad to say," he adds, "we haven't seen many encouraging signs of real reform at the top."

Polls show that Catholics remain distressed over their leadership. A survey this spring by LeMoyne College and Zogby International found support for bishops had eroded over the year from 68 to 59 percent. It also found a rise to 94 percent in those wanting the pope to discipline bishops who fail to remove offending priests. Gallup further reported that 40 percent of Catholics say they are now less likely to make contributions to the church.

'Deep confusion'

According to the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent conservative and strong supporter of the hierarchy, "Individual bishops have handled all this with wisdom and effective leadership, but as a body, they are in a state of deep confusion and tensions."

On the issue of openness, "They are stumbling along," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, a priest who has written books on church governance. "They want to clean this up, that's clear. But what they would like to do is clean their dirty laundry behind closed doors."

While some bishops have reached out to victims, made public names of priests with credible allegations against them, or disclosed the financial resources spent on settlements, such steps have been spotty, critics say.

Too often, they say, the aggressive legal strategies of the past 20 years have persisted. Some church lawyers have taken a tough approach toward victims, seeking files from therapy sessions and trying to force public naming of those who wish to remain anonymous. And many have vigorously fought against giving priests' files to prosecutors and plaintiffs' lawyers, using the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, an argument rejected by several states.

"They gave a lot of lip service to how they were going to do things differently, but their actions prove little has changed," says Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has handled hundreds of clergy-abuse cases.

Yet Mr. Anderson sees "pockets of hope." "Some bishops have made a genuine step forward in the last six months," he says. "In Chicago and Cleveland, they're in mediation working to develop alliances with survivors instead of working against them."

In Louisville, Ky., the archbishop last week reached a settlement with 243 victims for $25.7 million.

For their part, church lawyers say when it comes to lawsuits, it's their responsibility to protect the church. And insurers usually require that a vigorous defense be made or they will not pay.

Matters for the hierarchy

At the heart of the question for the hierarchy are the financial well-being of dioceses and issues involving the relationship between church and state.

The amount expended so far on the crisis is estimated at $1 billion, with 1,000 new allegations last year and hundreds of victims continuing to come forward. "This litigation is going to go on for years. Financial settlements and jury awards will erode church assets, and one or more dioceses will have to declare bankruptcy," says Fr. Reese.

Many in the hierarchy, from the pope down, worry about government inroads on church authority. "One of the dreadful things that's happened - with consequences not only for Catholics but for religious freedom for everybody - is the way some bishops have surrendered authority to the state," says Fr. Neuhaus. Bishops in Manchester, N.H., and Phoenix have recently made agreements with prosecutors to avoid indictments.

The pope hasn't removed bishops, some say, because he doesn't like to give into pressure from the state or people in the pews. Yet accountability remains a key issue, even for conservatives.

"Most people want the church to govern itself, and ask why they can't discipline one another, or why Rome can't discipline those bishops," Neuhaus says. "I'm not sure we have any good answers."

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