Lay Review Board Outlines Ambitious Agenda

By Joe Feuerherd
New York
January 31, 2003

The 13-member lay board, established by the U.S. Catholic bishops to investigate causes and propose cures to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, spelled out its plan of action to reporters Jan. 17 at a luncheon briefing on the final day of the group's two-day meeting in Manhattan.

The board will:

  a.. Conduct audits in each of the country's 195 dioceses to determine the degree of local compliance with the bishops' June 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Each diocese will be visited by a team of independent examiners who will review files and interview key officials, according to Kathleen McChesney, director of the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection. The work will begin this summer and should be completed by the fall, McChesney said.

  b.. Obtain from each diocese the procedures in place for local review boards whose job, under the charter, is to assist diocesan bishops in dealing with accusations of clergy abuse.

  c.. Interview approximately 100 church officials and other experts for a report on the causes of the crisis. "We have to look at the institution, and at systemic problems,'' said Washington attorney Robert Bennett, who is heading the subcommittee preparing the "causes" report. Said Bennett: "What is the relationship, if any, of celibacy? What is the relationship, if any, of homosexuality? We are going to deal with the very tough issues." Among those scheduled for an interview: Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston.

  d.. Identify and promote diocesan child protection programs that can serve as models for the church youth programs throughout the country. "We will identify the good programs that are out there," said Jane Childs, chair of the lay committee's subcommittee on safe environments. The subcommittee will visit Boston next month to study the archdiocese's ambitious "Protecting God's Children" program, said Childs.

In addition, the panel is commissioning two studies. The first is designed to determine the scope of clerical abuse and answer questions such as: How many priests have engaged in the sexual abuse of minors?

"People have been trying to get their arms around these numbers for years," said board member William Burleigh, who said he hopes the study will "nail down the statistical picture definitively." The report, which could be ready as early as June, will include figures on the costs associated with settling abuse claims.

Further, the board will commission a more comprehensive study, designed to "give us a context and causes from which this terrible abuse emerged," according to board member Paul McHugh, formerly psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

This "epidemiological survey" will be conducted by an independent entity experienced in such work and will, among other things, compare the rate of priestly abuse with sexual abuse of minors in "the public at large," said McHugh. The study will be of sufficient rigor to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, said McHugh.

The board meeting took place amid some controversy, as New York Cardinal Edward Egan snubbed the board. Although board members who are also members of the Knights and Dames of Malta had invited all board members to attend the knights' annual gala at the Waldorf-Astoria as their guests, Egan notified the board earlier in the fall that only members of the Malta organization should attend. He also sent a message suggesting that McChesney break a speaking engagement at a local church at which she was to discuss her work as director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, the investigative arm of the board. He also denied a request that he or one of his auxiliary bishops say Mass for the group (NCR, Jan. 24).

Despite that brouhaha, said board members, church officials have been responsive to the board's requests. "We are getting the support and the cooperation of the bishops," said Bennett. "Combined with that you have a laity out there that is not going to tolerate a particular bishop in their diocese if such a bishop decided they were not going to cooperate with the board." he continued.

"Ultimately," said board member Leon Panetta, "this is about restoring trust." He continued: "So in the end it's in [the bishops'] interest to cooperate in this effort because if we don't restore trust it is the church and its institutions that are going to be damaged."

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

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