Kathleen Mcchesney: Helping the Bishops Get It Right

By John Bookser Feister
St. Anthony Messenger
March 26, 2003

Last November, she was a top-ranking F.B.I. agent. Now she's working with the U.S. bishops to end the sex-abuse crisis.

Most people would run from a job offer to clean house for the U.S. bishops in the midst of the current crisis. Not Kathleen McChesney. She left a prestigious F.B.I. position last December to head the U.S. bishops' new Office of Child and Youth Protection. Now she relishes the opportunity to bring her deep experience in law enforcement and management to the service of her Church. When she left the Bureau, at 51, this lifelong Catholic had established herself as one of the most distinguished women in law enforcement.

In mid-January, at the U.S. bishops' conference headquarters in Washington, D.C., she stopped for an interview with St. Anthony Messenger. We talked about her career, the challenges of her new job and the road ahead. Her assignment is to help ensure that every U.S. diocese complies with the new U.S.-Vatican requirements on youth protection.

Distinguished Career

A native of greater Seattle, Kathleen Louise McChesney grew up in Holy Family Parish, Auburn, one of two children in a family of Irish-Italian heritage. A 31-year law enforcement career was capped by her 2001 appointment as the third-ranking official in the F.B.I. The division she headed coordinates F.B.I. work with the nation's 18,000 police agencies, as well as directs the work of the F.B.I. in 44 countries. She was honored last May by the National Center for Women and Policing with a Lifetime Achievement Award. She retired from her F.B.I. post to respond to the bishops' need.

Kathleen McChesney's career began in the 1970s near her childhood home, where she served for seven years as a police officer and detective in King County, Washington. She wanted to be an F.B.I. agent, but the Bureau wasn't accepting women candidates at the time of her 1971 graduation from Washington State University. She had earned a bachelor's degree in police science/administration in only three years, the first two at Gonzaga University.

She started police work at the bottom, fingerprinting and photographing suspects brought in under arrest. "It definitely wasn't a glamorous job, but it was considered a necessary job," she told one interviewer, "and it was my way to get a foot in the door of a good organization." She received a master's in public administration from Jesuit-run Seattle University in 1976. She also taught law-enforcement classes at Seattle University and King County Police Academy during those years.

During her Seattle tenure the F.B.I. opened its doors to women agents. In 1978 McChesney became a special agent for the F.B.I., assigned to the San Francisco office. Her foot was in the door again, and she rose through the ranks. In 1983 she was transferred to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Undercover and Special Operations Unit.

In succeeding years she served in various management capacities in several cities, including directing the F.B.I. field offices in Portland, Oregon, and in Chicago, the nation's largest. In 1987 this ambitious civil servant earned her Ph.D. in public administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Don't call this self-effacing woman "Dr. McChesney," though-"Most people don't," she says, "except in a room of other doctors-they like to do that."

Her soft-spoken manner belies a no-nonsense investigator, described by her former top aide in Chicago, Agent Walter Stowe, as "absolutely fearless," according to Associated Press (AP) at the time of her Church appointment. Others told the AP of her "well-sharpened people skills."

Her work in the field offices often dealt with investigating and stopping official corruption. Two recent high-profile cases from Chicago illustrate the point. One was a multistate jewelry-theft ring that targeted traveling jewelry sales representatives. A former Chicago police chief of detectives led the ring, racking up nearly $5 million in thefts over two decades. At the news conference announcing the arrests early in 2001, McChesney said, "The public expects aggressive enforcement of the law by its police officials, not collusion with criminals."

In Cicero, Illinois, of Al Capone fame, the town's president and nine others were charged in June 2001 with bilking taxpayers out of $10 million to finance a horse farm and golf course. "The Cicero candy store is closed," McChesney matter-of-factly told reporters.

Early in 2001 she was appointed assistant director of the F.B.I.'s training division. After September 11, 2001, as the Bureau began reorganizing to streamline itself and combat terrorism more effectively, she was named executive assistant director for law enforcement services, leading one of the F.B.I.'s four divisions.

She stood out among about 40 candidates who were considered for the post at the bishops' conference, according to USCCB General Secretary Msgr. William P. Fay. McChesney says she was recruited by a member of the new National Review Board, but gently declines offering further details. (This 13-member board of prominent Catholic laity is helping the bishops implement new youth-protection policies.)

She told reporters last November that she didn't hesitate for a moment when asked to apply. She, like most Catholics, is distressed by the scandal in the Church. She knew that the bishops meant business if they were willing to bring her on board.

Two-pronged Effort

McChesney's modest office still shows signs of unpacking during our mid-January interview: near-empty bookshelves, two small art pieces-sent by friends and supporters-sitting on a table awaiting a more permanent home. Today she wears a business suit, her lapel adorned with a U.S. flag brooch.

Her program, the newly created Office of Child and Youth Protection, exists to make sure that last year's work of the bishops' conference and the Vatican-U.S. Mixed Commission takes root in every U.S. diocese (or eparchy, in the case of Eastern Catholics).

That work was reflected in two documents finally ratified for a two-year trial period when the bishops met last November: the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the accompanying norms for dioceses and eparchies. The first is the broad program of youth protection the bishops agreed to; the second is related canon law applying to priests and deacons.

When asked if the complexity of these documents, which caused more than a little confusion throughout 2002, fazes her, a newcomer to Church administration, she quickly says no. "I worked for the government," she adds with a laugh.

Her office serves multiple purposes, she explains, stemming from the bishops' Charter. One of its main responsibilities is to help the dioceses establish standards and develop or locate abuse-prevention programs suited for the local situation. (She refers to these as "safe-environment programs.") She gives advice to diocesan staffers in person or by phone daily. Many dioceses already have these safe-environment programs in place now, she adds.

"The second part of the job is to conduct an audit of the efforts dioceses have made to implement the provisions of the Charter and the norms." Actually, the audit will be a compilation of 194 smaller audits, one for each diocese and eparchy in the United States. She'll monitor and coordinate the individual audits, and write a final report by December.

First, though, by June, her office plans to complete a survey of the scope and nature of the problem, including information on the number of clergy accused of abuse, number and ages of victims, and costs of financial settlements.

Her third major assignment is to commission an academic study on the context and causes of child abuse in a Church setting.

McChesney carries out many of her responsibilities in conjunction with the National Review Board. Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating leads these influential lay volunteers recruited by USCCB President Bishop Wilton D. Gregory last year to help navigate Church leadership out of the crisis brought on by mishandling of sex-abuse cases.

"It's both a monitoring and a supporting type of relationship," McChesney says. "They monitor and review what's done here, and they support our various initiatives. Similarly, I support them with their task." That includes handling logistics and other administrative work for the Board, she explains. "It's a daily interaction between myself and members of the Board. It's also a daily interaction between myself and various bishops around the country."

In these early months of 2003 her office is treading where no office of the conference has gone before-coming into individual dioceses to review records and audit a national policy. "It's going as I expected," she says. The people with whom she's working "are very supportive of this program. This is a phenomenal initiative for the Church."

It hasn't been a flawless start, however. In late January there was a flap in the Archdiocese of New York, when Cardinal Edward Egan objected to plans for some members of the National Review Board to join fellow members at a Knights of Malta fund-raiser, and when his staff caused McChesney to cancel a parish speaking engagement. After a backlash of negative publicity, Cardinal Egan later pledged his full cooperation with the National Review Board. McChesney and St. Ignatius Loyola Parish rescheduled her talk. Frankly, bishops aren't accustomed to this type of thing.

A Day in the Life

Though we caught her in the office, McChesney is as likely to be on the road visiting dioceses. "I travel every week somewhere. It's excellent for me to actually see what's going on." She observes that sex-abuse cases occur and are handled locally in the dioceses. "It's important for the dioceses to know me and what type of support my office can provide. The interaction has been very good."

When she goes to a diocese, she typically speaks to a parish or other group, meets with the bishop, meets perhaps with the diocese's victim advocate or lay review board member, or others involved in handling the local situation.

Based on the strong commitments from the bishops' assemblies both in Dallas last spring and in Washington, D.C., last fall, she predicts good cooperation. "I don't expect resistance in any diocese," she says. "The process that I'm implementing is not one I developed; it's one the bishops developed. That's a key distinction for me." She admits that some bishops may like it less than others. "You'd have to ask them," she adroitly offers. "They all understand that this is the Church's particular law for the United States and they know what that means."

Scope of the Problem

One question on almost everyone's mind when the Church sex-abuse topic comes up is, just how widespread is the problem? Several media organizations have jumped in with widely varying reports about how many known abusers have been dealt with by dioceses. The survey that McChesney's office is conducting this year will provide an authoritative number.

The most recent and most extensive media survey, conducted by The New York Times and reported in January, gave a diocese-by-diocese breakdown of reported cases of clergy sexual abuse. That survey found reports of abuse in just over 90 percent of dioceses, involving 1,205 priests (some resigned or deceased) and 4,000 victims over the past 60 years. Most of the abuse reported to date occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. Accusations dropped sharply after that, according to the survey.

McChesney had seen only the news summaries of the days-old study at the time of our interview, but they seemed to jibe with what her office has been finding in the initial stages of its survey, "particularly that a number of the cases that are being reported occurred in the far past. That doesn't negate their heinous nature by any means," she cautions, "but that helps when you try to determine what things need to be done so far as safe-environment programs, training and education."

Understanding as much as possible about what happened is a key to finding the right solution, she says.

She cautions, though, that the Times study could not conclude why there was a drop in reports after the 1980s. It could be, as the Times reported, that there might be younger victims who have yet to report abuse. "One of the things we try to do through our educational process is to ask people to come forward as soon as they can," says McChesney.

That's necessary in the criminal-justice system, she explains, to meet the statute of limitations. "The civil authorities have recognized that the sooner things are reported, then the fairer it is to both the victim and the alleged perpetrator."

Is education, then, the key to resolving the crisis? It's part of it, she says, but stresses that "healthy living" is a key, too. By that she means that young people grow up in safe environments, that parents know what their children are doing, that children are able to communicate with their parents or caregivers.

Pace of Progress

McChesney agrees that the Church is still in the crisis stage, well over a year after the Boston scandal began to make headlines. How long will the crisis continue? "It's hard to predict," she says. "The sad fact is that there are still cases that need to be dealt with."

She repeats her request that people come forward as soon as they can with any case, past or present. "The old cases do need to be dealt with, wherever victims are willing to come forward," she insists. In spite of the pain that the Church has undergone hearing so many awful stories, she says, "I think everyone is ready to hear more. The norms and the Charter provide direction on how to deal with it."

Known as goal-oriented, McChesney is confident that the diocesan survey will be complete by June and the audits by December. By the end of her first year, the academic study will be well under way, due for completion in 2004. Much of the coming months will be devoted to communication and training. "Those are key pieces: to let people know what we're doing and train people in the ways they will be part of the solution."

Some critics might suggest that having an internal group conduct audits and monitor enforcement is like having the fox guard the henhouse. McChesney responds, "Every organization should have an ongoing process of reviewing the adherence of its members to its policies."

The 194 diocesan/eparchal audits will be done by outside contractors, and the causes study will be conducted by credible outside academics, she adds. The National Review Board will make the results of the studies public, she explains, no matter what the findings are. They are bound by the Charter to do so.

The study's findings will be helpful beyond Church leadership, she thinks: "Because of the breadth of the study, it will be helpful to the criminal-justice community, the psychiatric community, the academic community and parishioners, too. Lots of people will be interested in the results."

McChesney says she hopes the work of her office and that of the National Review Board will resolve the clergy sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. "It won't be the solution to child abuse-that's going to happen in society. But we can certainly reduce the possibility of it happening within the Church. We'll have better-educated laity-adults and children. The Church can then refocus on the various ministries that it does so well."

Faith Dimension

Only a woman of faith could tackle such a daunting job. But Kathleen McChesney's is a quiet faith, a faith driven perhaps by duty and loyalty, by commitment to God and the people around her without making a show of it. When asked what feeds her faith, she quickly shifts focus to those who have inspired her.

Over the years it was her parents, the people in her parish, teachers and so on, but no one person stands out for this lifelong single woman. "A person's faith provides you with strength, optimism and caring. What struck me as a law-enforcement person was to see the faith of others, to see how crime victims get through things and how it helped some individuals to recognize their criminal activities and try to do better."

She feels strongly that young people need to have an experience of faith. "What's compelling about this position here [at the USCCB] is to be able to make parents feel confident so that they will bring their children to church and be exposed to the Faith."

When asked if the sex-abuse crisis shook her faith, as it may have shaken others', she comments, "I hope it's not their faith. I don't think faith and belief are the issue here. People who have faith know that some people do some awful, evil things-this isn't heaven! As intelligent, rational people, our obligation, because of our faith, is to try and fix those things, to make things right. It's a blessing to be able to do so."

Over the years some people have accused McChesney of overworking, which she denies with a laugh. She plays golf, for example, but not very well, she confesses. She's a jogger, too. "I've counseled many employees under my supervision over the years to find balance between work and the rest of their lives." The most balanced ones are the most productive, she adds.

One might think she would be under a lot of work stress, given the weight of her task, but she recalls her F.B.I. work fighting thieves, hijackers, terrorists and the like: "This is a demanding and busy job-there's more work than hours in the day-but it's not the exigency of law enforcement."

Leadership for Tomorrow

Kathleen McChesney has emerged in 2003, a bit by surprise, as an influential woman in the Catholic Church in the United States. But she doesn't see her work in those terms. "I'm part of the process," she says. She reminds us of where the buck stops: "The leadership in the Church on this issue is the bishops and priests, in showing their commitment to addressing the problem."

Of course, the clergy are working closely with laity, but "the fact that the bishops developed the Charter and norms and said, 'Tell the world how we're doing,' is the significant leadership here."

Good leaders don't do everything, this accomplished executive observes: They involve lots of people to get things done. "The blessing here is that a lot of the people involved in this process are so strongly committed to fixing the problem." With Kathleen McChesney's skill and resolve, one gets a sense that the bishops might well be on the right track.


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