Arrest, Resignation Intensify Scrutiny of Bishops Conference

By Patricia Rice and Ron Harris
Post-Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
June 17, 2003

The Catholic bishops gathering in St. Louis this week had planned a quiet spring meeting.

They had hoped they could work hard without drawing the kind of attention their Dallas meeting brought last year during the worst of the sexual abuse scandal.

But as some of the bishops began to arrive Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency hotel at Union Station for pre-meeting sessions, their faces wore expressions of gloom and sorrow.

On Monday night, Bishop Thomas O'Brien, of the Phoenix diocese, was arrested in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident after police traced a license plate number to his car.

Earlier Monday, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating resigned as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' national review board. Keating had compared some bishops to the Mafia in what he saw as their attempts to cover up criminal activity, and he made it known he was not sorry about the comments.

"It's likely to be a pretty tense meeting," said Philip Lawler, 52, editor of the conservative monthly publication, Catholic World Report, based in Lancaster, Mass. "There may be more disagreements than I would have predicted a month ago."

The latest accusations against O'Brien, who this month relinquished some of his authority in an agreement with prosecutors to avoid indictment on obstruction charges that he protected child-molesting priests, have further worsened the public image of bishops, Lawler said.

"It comes at a time when the general level of confidence in the bishops is at an all-time low, and then you have something like this happen and it just plunges lower," he said.

Jeff Grace, managing editor of Homilectic & Pastoral Review, a century-old publication aimed at Catholic priests and laymen, agreed that the recent events will put the national spotlight back on the bishops as they meet here.

"It's gotten in everybody's mind, and people will probably be paying more attention to what's going on in St. Louis," he said.

But Grace said he doesn't think the O'Brien and Keating news will have much effect on what the bishops actually do at the meeting.

"There are things that hit the radar scope of the news media, but (they) won't have an impact on the conference," he said.

Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St. Paul, Minn., who has represented more than 450 victims of alleged sexual abuse by priests and currently has about a dozen cases pending in St. Louis courts, says the Keating resignation is sending out new questions.

"Before Keating and the arrest in Arizona, the conference appeared to not get much attention from folks, but that's largely because the bishops have spun public relations such that people have begun to accept them at their word that they are doing something," he said. "It didn't become known, until Keating resigned, that they're not living up to their words, and now the focus is back on what they're doing."

The bishops will tackle a busy agenda running Thursday through Saturday afternoon.

On Thursday, researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the University of New York will explain to the bishops the "nature and scope" of the study of sexual abuse in the dioceses, which the bishops are paying them to do.

Last month the researchers sent the survey to each of the nation's dioceses.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, initially refused to answer some questions, citing confidentiality of information about individuals. Subsequently John Jay researchers reframed some questions.

"Once the bishops see how very professional the John Jay people are and how concerned they are for confidentiality and privacy, my prediction is that they will be well assured that the survey will be helpful," said sex abuse review board member William R. Burleigh, board chairman and former chief executive of E.W. Scripps Co. "The bishops are going to be pleased with the John Jay people at the end of the meeting."

Also on Thursday, St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali and St. Louis native Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee and six other bishops will propose a plenary council for Catholics in the United States in 2005 or later.

"It would be great for the church to have a plenary council," Dolan said. "We haven't had one since 1884."

The proposed council would address ways to promote holiness, priestly celibacy and sound sexual morality in the United States. The 1884 council is best known by Catholics in the pews, Dolan said, because it produced a small paperback pamphlet called the Baltimore Catechism, which was memorized by generations of Catholics.

On Saturday, the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse will present a brief report on the implementation of the Dallas charter on sexual abuse .

The bishops also will debate and vote on the National Directory for Catechesis and the National Directory for the Formation. It will give theological and practical ideas on teaching Catholics and those preparing to become Catholics the basics of their faith.

The bishops also plan to approve an advisory document that looks again at the growing role of permanent deacons. The ancient role of deacon for life was only formally reinstituted by Pope Paul VI in 1967. The men, who are ordained, can preach, perform marriages, funerals and other ministerial duties. Deacons are married or single men 35 or older.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops June Meeting

Among the topics to be discussed at the Thursday-Saturday meeting: ordained deacon training, collaboration between clergy and women, educating adult Catholics, social teaching and modern commercial agriculture, studies and audit of how dioceses are handling sexual abuse issues, a report on Native American Catholics and consideration of a special meeting of priests, bishops and lay people in 2005 or later. Friday will be entirely for prayer and reflection.

Reporter Patricia Rice:
Phone: 314-340-8221


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