Some Catholic Bishops Bristle over Sexual Abuse Questionnaire

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
Pittsburg Post-Gazette [Pittsburg PA]
May 29, 2003

As the lay review board responsible for overseeing the U.S. Catholic bishops' response to child sexual abuse prepares to meet in Pittsburgh next week, some bishops are balking at an extensive questionnaire that the board commissioned for a study of priests who sexually abuse minors.

Two bishops and a review board member said they believe most bishops will cooperate if their concerns are addressed. But reports from canon law circles indicate that at least a dozen bishops have refused cooperation due to fears their answers could be used against them in court.

"The bishops we have talked to who did have some initial concerns have all -- at least those I have been present for -- said that they want to cooperate," said review board member William Burleigh, board president of the E.W. Scripps Co.

"In some cases, their lawyers have raised concerns. Surprise, surprise."

While some bishops object that the survey is too detailed, Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh wants more questions. He is among many who chose to delay responding until the bishops discuss it at their June 19-21 meeting in St. Louis.

"Right now the survey doesn't seem to make any distinction between abuse that consists of inappropriate touching of a fully clothed person and the actions of a serial predator. It's all lumped together as sexual abuse," Wuerl said.

Wuerl has a documented record of removing child molesters from ministry, and last year urged his fellow bishops to include acts such as non-genital caressing of a fully clothed minor in their definition of sexual abuse. But he has often complained that the news media treat all cases as serial rape.

The survey also fails to ask if the bishop tried to get the best diagnosis and treatment for accused priests and whether -- if a priest was believed to have completed successful treatment -- a bishop reassigned him to parish or non-parish ministry, he said.

The survey "simply asks, 'Did you reassign him?' " Wuerl said.

"It makes it sound as if bishops all over the country were reassigning priests without making any effort to address the problem. ... We simply cannot present unnuanced, uncontextualized statistics for people to manipulate."

The review board was created in June to address a churchwide scandal that erupted after former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law was found to have reassigned serial child molesters to parish ministries. One of the board members is Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer who is dean of the Duquesne University School of Law, where the board will meet in closed session Sunday and Monday.

At the meeting, board members will hear reports on the committee's projects, which include making sure dioceses offer training to prevent abuse, auditing dioceses' claims of how they have dealt with accused priests and conducting two major studies on the causes and scope of the abuse, Cafardi said.

The problems arose over one of two questionnaires for the study on the scope of abuse.

"I have no difficulty with the intent of the survey -- it's the amount of information they are asking for," said Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg.

"I would have to say that, with the bishops I have discussed it with, that seems to be the general opinion. It's not a bad idea, but it's a bad instrument."

Bosco said he had sent in a short form that asked only for a statistical summary of known cases in the diocese. He believed many bishops had done likewise.

Burleigh said that about 120 forms have been received from the nation's 200 dioceses, but he did not know how many were short forms and how many were long forms

"From what I've been told, it's some of both, and it indicates that the majority of dioceses are engaged in the process," he said.

The issues Wuerl is concerned about are important but are outside the scope of this study, Burleigh said. The questionnaire is for a strictly statistical analysis, while a separate group is examining causes and context of abuse through interviews with those involved. A later study is planned to examine the variety of offenses and the responses by bishops, he said.

The current survey asks about cases dating to 1950. It could become the most comprehensive analysis of child sexual abuse in any social context, Burleigh said. The work is being done at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, which is known for its expertise in crime studies.

"John Jay has a lot of experience gathering statistical studies on sex abuse. They will tell you it is one of the most difficult areas of study. If this study can be successful, the church will go front and center for its courage and willingness to tell the truth," Burleigh said.

Meanwhile, there are questions.

The survey is supposed to be anonymous. Dioceses, accused priests and accusers are supposed to be identifiable. But many bishops believe that some identifications can be made from information such as the size of the diocese, the year of he priest's ordination and the circumstances of the abuse.

"It seemed clear to me and to many of the bishops as we talked about it that it would be possible to identify people, innocent or guilty," Bosco said. "The questions were very, very exhaustive."

But Burleigh said extraordinary measures have been taken to protect identities. To eliminate postmark clues the surveys are returned to an independent auditor rather than to John Jay College. Information is then segregated by "firewalls to keep identities confidential."

John Jay has a vested interest in anonymity, he said.

"They have a prestigious reputation and their reputation is at stake in keeping this confidential."

The questionnaire asked for far more information on accusations, victims and settlements than many dioceses could produce between mid-April and June, Bosco said. While his small diocese could produce most of it based on last year's review of old files, other dioceses would be overwhelmed, he said.

Poor records are another problem, Bosco said. Because most reported cases are more than 20 years old, current bishops were often not in the diocese when the abuse took place, and bishops who were have died. Some dioceses have split so many times since 1950 that a Florida priest could have served four dioceses while at one parish -- and the bishops disagree over who should claim him.

To answer such questions, researchers set up a hot line, which has received hundreds of calls, Burleigh said.

"That seems to be helping break whatever logjams exist. I think once the bishops hear the report when the body of bishops meets in St. Louis, that should go a long way to removing any remaining confusion or reluctance," he said.

The deadline was moved once "and the last I heard from John Jay, they were going to be flexible," he said, adding that the study is the most complex John Jay has undertaken.


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