Church Gets the Word out

By Maya Kremen [Little Falls NJ]
May 15, 2003

LITTLE FALLS - Catholic Church officials can only estimate the number of child sexual abuse cases in their dioceses, but they are committed to finding out everything they can.

That's what Kathleen McChesney, a former high-ranking FBI official hired by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to audit dioceses, told a crowd of 250 people on Tuesday night.

"The church doesn't know the numbers," she said. "We have to get through to them to get to the root of the problem."

McChesney was hired last year after bishops installed harsher policies regarding child sexual abuse by priests. She spent two hours trying to convince the most skeptical of Catholic audiences - the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful - that she would help her new employers understand what made sexual abuse happen and prevent it from recurring.

The meeting was held at Our Lady of the Holy Angels Parish, which is in the Diocese of Paterson. Bishop Frank J. Rodimer has allowed VOTF to meet on church property, unlike Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, who has banned the group. Myers recently called McChesney's agreement to talk to VOTF "perplexing." But McChesney said she came because it was "important to get the word out" about the bishops' commitment.

McChesney systematically broke down her plans . The bishops had provided her with $1 million to assign a team to audit all 195 dioceses in the country, said. She said she was commissioning two studies that would break down the number of sexual abuse victims, the number of perpetrators and the nature and causes of the offenses.

"We want to make certain that the dioceses are implementing codes of conduct. What we're trying to train is: What is abuse? What is a vulnerable adult looking for?" she said.

At first, some members of Voice of the Faithful regarded some of her assertions with suspicion.

"We feel that your heart is in the right place, but your hands are tied," said Maria Cleary, a leader of the North Jersey chapter of VOTF.

After McChesney's talk, members of VOTF and the audience pelted her with questions. They wanted to know who would train the auditors and how she would trust the bishops on their word, among other concerns.

The auditors would be former auditors and retired members of law enforcement fields, and experts would train them in behavioral science and church structure, she said.

She said she would try to ask the right questions of the bishops. Regarding their trustworthiness, she said she could promise only to help them do a better job.

"I'm not going to say that everything's going to change - I'm just saying that it's important to do what we're doing," she told Lou Serrano. He is the father of one of the alleged victims of James T. Hanley, a former Diocese of Paterson priest who was alleged to have abused more than a dozen boys.

By the end of the meeting, McChesney had won over much of her audience.

Several people praised her for speaking to VOTF despite Archbishop Myers' ambivalence. Others said they were glad there was someone speaking candidly about concrete plans to monitor the church.

"The Bishops of America should have done this 18 years ago," said the Rev. John Bambrick, a Manalapan priest and a victim of sexual abuse by a priest.

But McChesney emphasized that the bishops were committed to change. They had hired her, after all.

"For a lot of us, the church has been here at difficult times," she said. "Now the church is going through difficult times. When I changed jobs, I thought that way, and I hope that you would think that way as well."

Reach Maya Kremen at (973) 569-7168 or


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