Top Monitor: Church Reform Effort Can Work
McChesney Talks with Lay Group Barred by Newark's Archbishop

By Jeff Diamant
Star-Ledger [Newark NJ]
May 14, 2003

Even if the Catholic Church- sponsored study of priests' sexual abuse of children fails to uncover every crime, the comprehensive monitoring of bishops can lead to positive change in the church, Kathleen McChesney told Voice of the Faithful at a packed church hall in Little Falls last night.

McChesney, a former FBI official hired by U.S. bishops to assess reform efforts after last year's sex abuse scandal, told the crowd of 230 at Our Lady of Holy Angels Church that her office does not yet know the exact scope of the scandal.

"Many people have been victims, but the truth is, we don't really know (how many), not yet," she said. "What we have really are estimates" -- 350 priests nationwide who have resigned, 1,400 who have been accused, and more than 4,000 victims.

"I'm not here to tell you that everything is going to change. All I can tell you is that it's important to try to do what I'm going to try to do, and that I'm going to do it. I ask you all to be patient. We have six, eight months to do the audit and get some of this information to you. It's a long process," she said.

McChesney's decision to appear at a Voice of the Faithful meeting caused controversy after the group made public a letter written by Newark Archbishop John J. Myers criticizing McChesney, saying her office's decisions had perplexed a number of bishops.

Specifically, Myers was troubled by McChesney's decision to meet with Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group that Myers has called "anti-Catholic" and has banned from meeting on church property in the archdiocese.

McChesney's role as the first executive director of the church's Office of Youth and Child Protection includes monitoring bishops' compliance with the charter they adopted after the scandal broke, to bar sexually abusive priests from ministry. She also will oversee an academic study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to assess the history of sex abuse in the church.

She said a team of auditors -- she estimated 50 -- will assess reforms in the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States.

She said the bishops' charter, adopted last year in Dallas, includes pledges to provide safe environments for children, to hold priests accountable and to work toward healing and reconciliation.

"My job and the job of many others -- and some would say all of you -- is to help them fulfill their pledges," McChesney said.

"For a lot of us, the church has been there in our difficult times -- with illness, with deaths, with personal struggles, with anxieties and so forth," she said. "Now the church is going through some very difficult times. I, for one, when I changed jobs (from the FBI), thought in some small way I can be there for the church. I hope that you would think that way as well."

Some Voice of the Faithful members doubted that McChesney's audit will receive accurate data from church leaders, who they said were long used to cultures of secrecy.

"I'm sensing a lot of us feel your heart is really in the right place, but I think we also feel your hands are really tied," said Maria Cleary, head of the northern New Jersey chapter of Voice of the Faithful.

McChesney has no formal power over the bishops, though her office can publicly release reports that may embarrass them.

"There are dioceses around the country, I can tell you this, that have done some commendable things, and some that have not," McChesney said. "I'm going to report it as I see it. That's what I was hired to do.

"If nobody steps forward and tries to do the right thing, you would go backwards," she said. "I hope to think we are going forward ... One of the things that's difficult for people to understand about the church is that its structure is really unlike anything you can relate to in our culture. It's not a government organization, it doesn't have a hierarchy ... in the United States."

But, she said, that is why the U.S. bishops' agreement to comply with the new rules is significant. And she noted that her office plans to release a report on each diocese's performance.

Last night's meeting was preceded by a news conference by the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, at which it charged that Myers has been "indifferent" to the plight of victims.

SNAP officials said Myers has not properly responded to some victims and has hurt victims by not working more closely with SNAP, which often acts as an intermediary for victims wary of approaching the church, SNAP officials said.

They said other dioceses in New Jersey have shared basic information with SNAP when it calls, such as an accused priest's current parish.

Myers' spokesman, Jim Goodness, said information about active priests' whereabouts is already available, in the archdiocese directory.

But Buddy Cotton, president of SNAP in New Jersey, said that not sharing basic information when SNAP calls violates the part of the bishops' charter that calls for an open communications policy.

Goodness said the Newark archdiocese has acted properly and that it has had programs in place to help victims for more than a decade.

"We have dealt consistently with individuals who have come forward with accusations with compassion, with concern, with care. Immediately, when someone comes forward, we offer the person counseling through our victims coordinator -- psychological counseling, or other support services that the individual feels is necessary.

"Immediately, once we determine that an accusation is credible, the priest leaves the ministry and stays out of ministry until such time as the diocese determines a final disposition," Goodness said.

SNAP members also criticized Myers for his attitude toward McChesney and Voice of the Faithful, which he has said is aligned with church dissenters.

"Archbishop Myers' criticism of Dr. Kathleen McChesney and her office is deplorable," said SNAP spokesman Matt Kelly. "He should be supporting her efforts to do the job that he and his brother bishops have hired her to perform."

Goodness said Myers invited McChesney to Newark months ago, and that she accepted but has not set a date.

McChesney confirmed that account last night.

Asked about McChesney, Marge Cotton of Voice of the Faithful said: "I hope she's strong enough to hang in there. She's got a long fight ahead of her."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.