Catholic Reforms Slow in Atlanta
Archbishop Promises Policy on Sex Abuse

By Gayle White
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution [Atlanta GA]
Downloaded June 16, 2003

A year after American Catholic bishops met in Dallas to clean up the sex abuse scandal in the church, the Archdiocese of Atlanta has yet to establish a policy that conforms to the bishops' reforms.

A proposal has bounced among Archbishop John F. Donoghue and his staff, canon lawyers, civil lawyers, church insurers and a new Lay Advisory Board for almost a year.

Members of the board, appointed by Donoghue under guidelines adopted by the bishops last year, have opted to keep their names private.

"The safety of children will remain my No. 1 priority in this archdiocese," promised Donoghue, head of North Georgia's 350,000 Roman Catholics. "It is important for us to get the policy right."

But the delay in implementing an updated policy and the failure to publish board members' names disturb some victims and their families.

"It's promoting the secrecy that allowed there to be a cover-up in the first place," said the Rev. Ellie Harold, a minister ordained by the Association of Unity Churches who said she was molested about 40 years ago by a priest serving at St. Joseph Catholic School in Marietta.

"Nothing's been addressed," said Jan Larango, who founded an archdiocesan program to prevent sex abuse after learning that her two sons were abused by a priest. "I think the victims have to keep after them."

As bishops prepare for their semiannual meeting in St. Louis this week, fallout from widespread charges of molestation by priests and of cover-ups by bishops continues across the country.

Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating is resigning as head of a national panel examining sex abuse by Catholic priests. Survivors' groups called the resignation a serious setback.

Last week, the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., agreed to a $25.7 million settlement with 243 people who claimed to be victims of sexual abuse by clergy and other church employees.

Earlier this month, a Phoenix prosecutor announced that Bishop Thomas O'Brien was surrendering some of his authority to avoid criminal charges for sheltering abusive priests.

Six priests were indicted during the investigation by Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.

Audit targets noncompliance

Meanwhile, a national office created by the bishops and headed by former FBI official Kathleen McChesney has begun to audit dioceses for compliance with the documents adopted last year.

Keating's resignation from the National Review Board, established by the bishops at the Dallas meeting last year, comes after he feuded with some bishops about how to compile data on accusations of sex abuse, lawsuits and prosecutions.

In May, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and the bishops of all 12 California dioceses passed a resolution refusing to participate in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, saying its methodology was flawed and it might require them to violate state privacy laws. After the college modified the questions, the bishops agreed last week to furnish data, according to a spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference.

Despite the compromise, tension between the bishops and Keating escalated. Keating accused Mahony of "listening too much to his lawyer and not enough to his heart" and compared unnamed bishops to "La Cosa Nostra."

The cardinal said Keating's remarks were "off the wall" and "the last straw."

"We are only doing what the bishops themselves instructed us to do and what's necessary to restore the faith of the faithful," Keating told The Associated Press.

The John Jay report is expected in December, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In January, The New York Times estimated that the crisis involved more than 1,200 priests accused of abusing more than 4,000 minors in 161 of the country's 177 dioceses.

Six American bishops -- including Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston -- have stepped down after being accused of sheltering abusive priests or of inappropriate sexual relationships.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and author of several books about the church, said he thinks most bishops have removed priests who are a threat to children.

"They're still having difficulties with working out practical problems of how you set up a board, who you put on it and how you not only write up a set of policies but really train people to implement them," he said. "And I think some of the bishops still hope they can get through this without exposing all the dirty laundry. . . ."

Some dioceses that have appointed advisory boards have made their members' names public, while others, like Atlanta, have not, Walsh said.

In withholding names, Donoghue "acceded to the . . . people on the panel who were concerned about getting pressure from media or anybody else," said Fred Isaf, an Atlanta lawyer acting as spokesman for the nine-member board. "I don't think it's necessary for the panel to be public in order to do its work."

The archbishop described the board members as "professional people who are experts in their own areas." One is a sex abuse victim and one is a priest, he said.

Donoghue promises that the archdiocese soon will have procedures that comply with the documents that emerged from last year's conference.

Delays slow progress made

At that meeting in Dallas last June, the bishops adopted a sweeping document, called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and rules for implementing it. The rules were reviewed by the Vatican and revised in November.

They establish a procedure for removing any priest guilty of sexual abuse from the active ministry. They also set up church courts to try clergy accused of sexual abuse and lay advisory boards to make recommendations to bishops. The rules specify that the bishops, not the advisory boards, are ultimately responsible for acting on allegations.

Donoghue said the Archdiocese of Atlanta has no "pending pedophilia situations."

He also said there is no evidence that parishioners are withholding offerings in retaliation for the crisis, as they have done in some dioceses. "Some parishes are down in their income; some are up," he said. "We think it's mostly the economy."

Catholicism continues to grow in the archdiocese. A religious census released last year showed that Catholics are second only to Southern Baptists in six major metro counties.

The bishops made some important progress in Dallas last year, said Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," a book about sexual abuse in the church. But he said he believes the church will lose members and influence without some serious, structural reform.

"I'm not predicting a seismic shift," he said, "but I think there will be a slow siphoning away of people. I don't want that to happen. I'm a very rooted Catholic myself. I want the church to reform and find its voice anew."


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