Catholic reform panel: Does it have teeth?

As the laypeople's review board has its first meeting, concerns are raised about a 'counteroffensive' to reform.

For millions of the Roman Catholic faithful, the group of prominent laypeople named to the national review board on clergy sexual abuse is key to saving the American church.

But even as the group held its first meeting in Washington Tuesday, concern was brewing among some Catholics that a "counteroffensive" may be undercutting reforms issued by US bishops in Dallas in June. Strong public pronouncements by church and lay leaders haven't been matched by vigorous action to institute reforms.

In some cases there have been signs of backward steps: Some offending priests aren't being removed as quickly as promised. Some lay efforts to increase involvement are being discouraged. And concerns have developed over the review board itself.

As the first body ever charged with monitoring the actions of the church's US hierarchy, how the review board defines and carries out its role will be central to restoring trust within the church and the credibility of the nation's bishops.

The bold stance signaled in Dallas by its chairman, Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma – that it would call for the removal of bishops who'd ignored or abetted crimes – has dropped by the way. His remarks, repeated in several interviews, encouraged the rank and file to believe that, despite inaction in Dallas on bishop accountability, the prime issue still roiling the church would be dealt with. Instead, Mr. Keating recently said the task would be left to local review boards.

"That is disconcerting. It's kind of a joke, since [the local boards] are appointed by the bishops themselves," says the Rev. Robert Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon, Mass.

In a recent poll, 96 percent of Catholics said they want such bishops to face disciplinary action. After the board session on Tuesday, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, confirmed that it was "not up to the [USCCB], nor [its] instruments or agencies ... to call for the resignation of bishops."

Catholics are left pondering just how forceful the new board will be. The stature of some members suggests they're not likely to be led by the nose: They include, for example, former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta; Robert Bennett, the lawyer who represented President Clinton in his impeachment trial; and Anne Burke, a justice of the Illinois Court of Appeals.

But others work for church organizations or have represented the church in court. And while Keating refused the request from victim advocacy groups to be represented on the board, the one psychiatrist selected was founder of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which questions the legitimacy of long-buried memories of abuse.

According to William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, "The panel doesn't have the teeth to remove bishops, but it has a big magnifying glass, and Keating will be the central whistleblower in the Catholic church."

Tuesday, Keating said Catholics should "exercise the power of the purse" if a bishop failed to do his duty, and "not write another check until things change."

The victims and other Catholics are looking to the board for "quick, decisive, and overdue action," said David Clohessy, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), after meeting with the review board. Earlier this week SNAP identified several dioceses where it said the new national charter to protect children was being violated, including failure to remove abusive clerics or consult with diocesan review boards.

Some civil authorities also haven't been impressed with the church's level of cooperation. Prosecutors in several jurisdictions have convened grand juries to subpoena church records.

"There can be no tolerance for these heinous crimes," says Father Bullock, "but a lot of priests are concerned about false allegations and no due process – we don't know who is determining the substance of allegations, who is doing the investigation, and we are not instructed in our rights."

One of the first tasks of the national panel is to review diocesan policies – Keating has requested a "prompt" assessment from bishops of what has been done since the Dallas meeting. The panel will hold its second session on Sept. 16.

The bishops hope by their November annual meeting to have Vatican approval of key provisions of the Dallas reforms. But remarks from some in Rome and two key cardinals in Latin America have raised eyebrows. The cardinals termed what is happening in the US as media persecution of the church similar to what occurred under Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. While the pope spoke last week in Toronto about the shame of the sexual-abuse issue some Catholics still ask why the Holy See has yet to apologize to victims or embrace them.

"In the background is pending litigation in a number of cases," explains Chester Gillis of Georgetown University. "There may be huge judgments against the church if it is found negligent, so they are cautious about what they say publicly."

Still, some are heartened. "We are making progress," Bullock says. "The laity is aroused and demanding a role; there will be no more secrecy or shuffling of priests back and forth; there is no immunity any more.... Bishops will be accountable."

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