Catholic Lay Board Finds Limits to Power over Bishops
By Laurie Goodstein
The New York Times
June 18, 2003
At the height of the priest sexual abuse scandal a year ago, as the nation's Roman Catholic bishops fought to restore faith in their church, the most radical step they took was to appoint a board of lay Catholics to monitor the bishops' compliance with their own new policies.
As radical as it was, the bishops put their stamp on it. The bishops' president selected the chairman of the board, Frank Keating, then governor of Oklahoma. The bishops approved the members and paid for their meetings around the country. The bishops hired a former F.B.I. official to keep them accountable and gave her office space in their headquarters in Washington.
And as the recent dispute over Mr. Keating's provocative remarks likening the bishops to the Mafia makes clear, the bishops still have all the power - to reassign or remove priests, to ignore or carry out the new policies, to withhold or release information about abusers. The only power the board has is to make the recalcitrant bishops look bad.
"This board works for the bishops, it's in the employ of the bishops and to some degree beholden to the bishops," said R. Scott Appleby, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of the university's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. "The only recourse it has to influence the bishops who don't choose to comply is to go to the media, in effect to go to the Catholic laity and report who is not complying."
This week, when the bishops reconvene in St. Louis, much of their discussion will go on behind closed doors, including what could be their most telling interchange. On Thursday, in a St. Louis conference center, at least three members of the review board are to face off with more than 250 bishops to try to allay the bishops' concerns about the board's work, board members and church officials say.
In the history of the Catholic Church, never before has a group of bishops subjected their operations to lay oversight, Mr. Appleby said. "That's unprecedented, and they're doing so, frankly, not out of some theology of an empowered laity, but because they're under political, legal and financial pressure," he said.
At the top of the bishops' list of concerns is the study the board has commissioned to determine the extent of sexual abuse in the church. The bishops asked for such a study last year when they passed their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" at their June meeting in Dallas. Some bishops said they expected that the results could be used to prove that the problem was no greater for the church than for society at large.
But many were surprised by the thick survey forms that landed on their desks this spring asking for a barrage of details about each allegedly abusive priest, his work history, his victims, his treatment and his supervision. To compile the information, some bishops have had to comb through files that are decades old.
Some bishops balked at the survey. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles sent a letter to bishops urging them not to fill out the forms. The bishops of California, who are led by Cardinal Mahony, unanimously passed a formal resolution last month calling for the survey to be "stayed" - a word choice indicating the heavy involvement of their lawyers. The California bishops maintained that if they filled out the surveys, the information could violate state privacy laws, and could be subpoenaed by prosecutors.
What happened next is indicative of the board's relationship to the bishops, and of board members' divergent strategies to use both diplomacy and shame to get the bishops to cooperate. Some board members met quietly in St. Louis with a California bishop and diocesan lawyers, and researchers conducting the study. In that gathering, and in subsequent phone calls, many of the California bishops' concerns were allayed, church officials and board members said in recent interviews.
Jane Chiles, a board member, said yesterday that the California bishops' legal objection turned out to be a "false concern" because the information on the surveys was already subject to subpoenas.
"I have to believe that the California bishops were being advised by their diocesan attorneys who were exercising extreme caution and who truly have not had the benefit of the larger discussion that we were a part of, which calls for transparency," she said. "The attorneys for a diocese do not think that way."
Meanwhile, in an effort to bludgeon the bishops into cooperation, several other board members privately told a few reporters that the California prelates were stalling on the survey. Right about the time that the researchers and the bishops and lawyers had resolved the matter, Mr. Keating gave an interview to The Los Angeles Times saying, "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think is very unhealthy."
Mr. Keating stepped down after Cardinal Mahony said the Mafia comments were "the last straw." Spokesmen for the bishops, for Mr. Keating and for the board all agree that Mr. Keating had been planning to resign anyway.
Dan Mahoney, a spokesman for Mr. Keating, said that Mr. Keating, a former prosecutor and F.B.I. agent, had grown frustrated by Cardinal Mahony and other bishops who he thought had portrayed themselves as open and transparent while still refusing to disclose information. So he decided to use the chairman's post as a "bully pulpit" to send a message to the bishops that Catholic laypeople would hold them accountable. "The governor never pretended the board was a prosecutorial body, but what they had was a public forum to stand up and restore some confidence in the church," Mr. Mahoney said.
Some board members emphasize that while there are pockets of resistance to their work, most bishops are cooperating. Some news accounts have said that two-thirds of the bishops have already responded to the surveys. But some board members say that many of those responses have been partial, and many other bishops have simply sent back questions about the process. They say that full compliance is a long way off.
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the resistance was not surprising. In an interview last week, he said: "I think only naive people would say we'll just sit down and rewrite things and then it's done. No major issue is ever addressed so facilely, so yes there are going to be bumps in the road."
He added: "But are the bishops committed to it? Yes we are."
Now, with Mr. Keating gone, the challenge for the board is to prove to the laity that they will be just as tenacious in monitoring the bishops.
"We do not see ourselves working for the bishops," Ms. Chiles said. "We see ourselves working for the church, for the whole church."
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