Events Bring New Turmoil to Bishops' Annual Meeting
Resignation, Hit-Run Death Freshen Issue of Priest Sex Abuse

By Jessica McBride
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [St. Louis MO]
June 18, 2003

St. Louis - When America's bishops meet in St. Louis for their annual meeting starting Thursday, they are expected to avoid lengthy public discussion on the sex abuse scandals that dominated last year's conference in Dallas and led to a landmark charter.

But two dramatic developments this week threaten to overshadow other work at the conference - the charging of the Phoenix bishop in a fatal hit-and-run and the resignation of the former Oklahoma governor running a lay review board after he compared church leaders to the Mafia.

"I think it's inevitable with all the bad publicity the bishops have had recently, that once again it (child sex abuse) will be what everybody's talking about," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic scholar and editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

"The actual agenda, at least in the open session, has very little to do with sex abuse. It will not be like last year, when you had more reporters than bishops."

Officially, church leaders at the three-day U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in St. Louis will focus on items such as a new directory for deacons, ways to promote collaboration between clergy and women, and how to use Catholic teachings to help with challenges affecting agriculture.

The bishops also will block off the entire day Friday for a prayer session that will be closed to the public. Only a brief report from a bishops' ad-hoc committee on the sex abuse issue is scheduled.

But victims' advocates and other interest groups plan to be out in full force. Already Wednesday night, protesters were lining up outside the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at Union Station.

They consider progress in the past year to be scattershot at best, with not all bishops complying with requests from the review board or agreeing to release information to the public and authorities.

On Monday, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating stepped down as leader of the National Review Board, established at last year's conference to examine priest sex abuse, after he was criticized for comparing church leaders to La Cosa Nostra - the Mafia. When he resigned, Keating wrote, "To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church."

Then, Tuesday, Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix was criminally charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident by the same prosecutors who had struck an unusual deal earlier this month that allowed him to avoid criminal obstruction charges for his handling of sex abuse cases. The Vatican accepted O'Brien's resignation Wednesday.

Charter in flux

Last year's bishops meeting in Dallas was extraordinary. There were dramatic confrontations between the bishops and victims of priests.

The bishops approved a landmark charter that detailed such changes as removing priests from duties when they faced abuse allegations, creating lay review boards in dioceses and mandating that bishops report abuse to outside authorities. However, the Vatican raised concerns about due process and other issues - the revised plan handed too much power back to the bishops, victims' advocates believe.

Leaders with the Milwaukee branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said they intend to meet in St. Louis with Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to discuss what they see as broken promises on his part regarding the priest sex abuse topic.

Peter Isely, Milwaukee leader of SNAP, contended that Dolan's tenure has disintegrated from "initial hopefulness to disturbing developments.

"There's a review board that has been set up that has been almost completely silent. You don't hear him (Dolan) talking about the issue - he has removed himself from it. No one has been fired or removed from senior management in Milwaukee - it's the (former Archbishop Rembert) Weakland team. He promised to mediate these cases, and he backed off that."

But Archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski outlined a long list of measures he said shows Dolan's concern.

"Archbishop Dolan has made it clear that clergy sexual abuse is a priority for him, and his actions show that to be the case," said Topczewski.

"He has met and sat in countless meetings with individuals and groups, gone through the listening sessions last fall, which was one of the few dioceses in the country that had such sessions, made himself available at any point to meet with victim survivors," he said. "And he continues to show this by his appointment of a diocesan review board that has the highest quality and caliber of people - it's led by a former lieutenant governor - to examine policies and make sure the diocese is conforming to the charter adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas. He has appointed a community advisory board led by people outside the diocesan structure. The archdiocese has opened the doors to the process of pastoral mediation."

Dolan and two other Wisconsin bishops called about the conference were traveling and not available for comment.

Bishop Robert J. Banks of the Diocese of Green Bay said there would be discussion of the lengthy questionnaire that each diocese was asked to fill out by Keating's panel. It asked for detailed information on past abuse allegations and led to the confrontation between Keating and Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahoney that resulted in Keating's resignation. Several prelates, Mahoney among them, balked at participating, reportedly because of concerns over privacy.

But Banks didn't believe that discussion would dominate.

"I think we're all together on how to handle this. My mood is confident right now," he said Wednesday night in St. Louis. "We are on the right path. We are all good men. I really think the policies we put in place last year have been very helpful and effective."

Bishops take on controversy

Behind the scenes, the bishops are expected to discuss how to continue implementing the Dallas charter and whether to call the first U.S. plenary council since 1884.

A plenary council is a meeting that would include people from all wings of the church, from presidents of Catholic colleges, to priests, to the laity, and would discuss the current crises of faith in the church.

Regarding the charter, Reese said the bishops have struggled - and differed - with its complexity, such as how much information about abusive priests to make public.

"The problem the bishops face today is how to implement the charter," he said.


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