Lay Review Board Head Says Most Catholic Bishops Willing to Cooperate with Survey

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
June 2, 2003

Although some Catholic bishops have not yet responded to their own mandated survey on past cases of child sexual abuse by priests, the head of the lay review board they created to oversee their response to abuse said most are willing to cooperate.

"As a general rule, the level of cooperation is high. There are some exceptions," said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, chairman of the review board, which is meeting today at Duquesne University.

Keating spoke at yesterday's graduation for the Duquesne University School of Law, whose dean, Nicholas Cafardi, is a review board member. Keating did not allude to the sexual abuse issue in his speech, but gave a brief interview.

Last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that many bishops had not yet completed a lengthy questionnaire on how their dioceses had responded since 1950 to allegations of child molestation by priests. Some believed that dioceses, accused priests and victims might be identifiable in the supposedly anonymous survey. Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh said it didn't ask enough questions about the types of offenses or measures bishops took to try to prevent repeat offenses.

Some concerns are reasonable, but stonewalling won't be tolerated, Keating said.

"If the concern is confusion over what exactly this means or confusion over whether this imperils any ongoing criminal or civil matter, there is perhaps reason" for further discussion, Keating said.

"But if the concern is simply for the purpose of obfuscation and foot-dragging, that's unacceptable and we'll find it out sooner rather than later."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created the national lay review board last June at a meeting to address a national scandal over bishops who had kept known child molesters in ministry. Its task is to ensure that the bishops keep their promises to prevent abuse and to remove offenders from ministry.

But bishops are unused to oversight from anyone outside the Vatican. Keating is among at least four former FBI agents whom the bishops charged with monitoring their responses to abuse. By many accounts this has created a clash of cultures.

When the review board met in New York City, Cardinal Edward Egan would not say Mass for the group and forbade it to attend a dinner of an influential lay group, the Knights of Malta. Archbishop John Myers of Newark criticized Kathleen McChesney, who runs the bishops' new Office for Protection of Children and Young People, for speaking to a lay reform group, Voice of the Faithful. Rumblings from Rome indicate that some insiders don't think canon law envisions lay oversight of bishops.

"There is no question but that this is a new ball game," Keating said.

"But none of us are seeking to rewrite canon law. All we're seeking to rewrite is behavior. We are the bishops' best friends. For those who see us as a challenge or a nuisance, they are wrong. We are focused on returning the faith to the faithful. That is all we want to do and that is what we intend to do."

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