Turmoil Continues
U.S.bishops to Meet in St. Louis Amid New Controversies

By Carol Eisenberg
June 19, 2003

It was supposed to be a low-profile meeting. No emotional outpourings from sex abuse victims. No public rebukes from lay Catholics. No media circus. In short, the antithesis of the Roman Catholic bishops' session in Dallas at the height of the sex abuse scandal last year.

But as the U.S. bishops begin a semiannual meeting in St. Louis today, their efforts to navigate their way into calmer waters have been thrown off course by the actions of some of their brethren - the arrest Monday of Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident and the resignation of Frank Keating as head of the bishops' watchdog group on sex abuse, after a public exchange of insults with Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony.

"You can't make this stuff up," said David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism." "They keep trying to get on track, and then they keep derailing themselves. I see these very much as self-inflicted wounds."

With public confidence in the bishops at an all-time low, Gibson believes many Catholics will see the arrest of O'Brien, who narrowly avoided indictment for protecting child-molesting priests, "as a singular metaphor for the missteps of the bishops over the past year-and-a-half. It plays into people's sense that the hierarchy has done a hit-and-run on the entire Catholic Church."

Gibson and others said the Keating imbroglio will inevitably spotlight closed-door fireworks among the bishops about how much information should be disclosed to the national lay review board and to the public.

"If people think the Catholic Church is a tightly organized, hierarchical structure, well, it isn't," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a weekly, Manhattan-based Jesuit magazine. "You've got 195 bishops, who are being advised by 195 lawyers who are giving them contradictory advice, and they're muddling through. But that muddling through is embarrassing, and it's not helping their reputation."

Some of the knottiest disagreements will be discussed this afternoon when at least three members of the lay watchdog group, along with researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan who designed a survey to gauge the extent of priest sex abuse, will answer bishops' concerns. Several prelates, including New York Cardinal Edward Egan, have declined to participate in the survey, reportedly because of concerns about priest confidentiality and liability. The questionnaire, sent out this spring, asked for details about every case of an alleged priest abuser since 1950, his victims and his supervision.

"Without being Pollyannaish about it, yes, there have been several bishops who have resisted," said lay panel member William Burleigh, chairman and former chief executive of E.W. Scripps Co. "But the vast majority wants to cooperate, and the majority is cooperating. And I expect that after they receive answers to their questions at the bishops' meeting, most concerns will be allayed."

Burleigh said members of the panel also will remind bishops that, "until we can lay before our fellow Catholics the truth, whatever it may be, I don't think we can get this crisis behind us. And so we have to appeal to the moral conscience of the bishops, who have a tough job and who we respect and who, in some cases, have legitimate concerns about this process."

But that discussion, like two-thirds of the meeting, will be in executive session, making the gathering one of the most private in years - which has drawn criticism from victims' advocates and lay reform groups.

Aside from a brief progress report Saturday from Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops' committee on sex abuse, there is no scheduled public discussion of the implementation of new sex abuse policies. The public sessions will be dominated by discussion of a directory that will give theological and practical ideas on teaching Catholics the basics of their faith, and an advisory document that looks at the growing role of permanent deacons.

"What conclusion can you draw except that the published agenda is not the whole story, and then isn't that getting back to being secretive, which is what this whole controversy has been about?" asked Paul Lakeland, chairman of the religious studies department at Fairfield University and author of "The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church."

The bishops' spokesman, Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, noted that the bishops have a good record of holding public meetings. He also said reports on how each diocese is implementing new policies on sex abuse are slated to be delivered by the national lay review board in December.

Parts of the executive sessions, he said, are for "prayer and reflection," but the bishops also will ponder a proposal for the first national plenary council since 1884 - a special meeting where bishops and other Catholics would examine the church's problems. A third of the bishops are said to support the idea, which would look at ways to promote holiness, priestly celibacy and sound sexual morality in the United States.


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