Rift between bishops and lay board raises trust issue

Frank Keating said it all along: US Roman Catholic bishops' commitment to church reform is still an open question.

A year ago, the outspoken former Oklahoma governor lost his seat on a prominent lay board probing clergy abuse because he compared some church officials to the mafia. Few panel members were sorry to see him go.

Today, some of them appear as angry as he was.

The new head of the 13- member National Review Board says bishops are returning to "business as usual" as media attention shifts away from the sex abuse scandal. In a scathing letter, Illinois Appellate Judge Anne Burke accused the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) of undermining her board by trying to block an annual audit for the protection of children.

Several bishops responded with letters berating the judge for assuming the "worst motives on the part of the bishops."

The exchange, posted Tuesday on the website of the National Catholic Reporter, is the strongest signal yet of strife between the bishops and the lay board they appointed 22 months ago to help restore their credibility with parishioners. Less than two years after news of widespread clergy abuse rocked the nation, the conflict threatens what for many church members has become a fragile trust in Catholic leaders.

"This is crucial," Judge Burke said in an interview. The bishops have pledged to dismantle a culture of secrecy that allowed known abusers to "minister" to children, but "maybe they didn't mean what they said," she noted. "I hope that's not true, but it appears it may be."

At issue is a 2002 promise that bishops would take specific steps to clean up their dioceses. One requirement was that a national Office of Child and Youth Protection would produce an annual report on their efforts. In 2003, that report was based on a nationwide "audit." Burke and Keating say each subsequent one was also to be based on an audit.

But this February, as the board presented the bishops with the 2003 report, members were unaware that key bishops had quietly petitioned USCCB president Bishop Wilton Gregory to delay until November, and possibly to skip, the 2004 audit.

Burke sees this as a major betrayal. "We were manipulated," she said in her March 29 letter. If the audit is delayed until fall, she wrote, "those who said that the bishops were never serious about breaking free from the sins, crimes, and bad judgments of the past will be vindicated."

The bishops' spokesman, Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, says church leaders don't intend to back out of their commitment. "We're not talking about whether this [audit] will be done, but how it will be done," he says. Under pressure to act before November, USCCB leaders have decided to take up the matter at a closed-door retreat in June.

But with faith in church leaders already shaken, many Catholics see the decision as a setback to rebuilding trust. "What [the bishops] need more than anything to restore credibility is a unanimous vote from the board saying, 'The bishops are on board and we're really happy with them,' " says the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine "America." "That sure hasn't happened yet."

For others, the bishops' move is an ominous sign. "This action says what we've feared and suspected and said for a long time: that all commitment to reform vanishes when the klieg lights go off," says David Clohessy of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, the nation's largest support group for clergy sex abuse victims.

That disillusionment worries Keating, because, he says, it will be the church's loss. "The faith is not at risk," he says, "but the faithful are. Any time by petulance and arrogance and immaturity you push people away, some will stay away, and that's heartbreaking."

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