As Bishops Meet, Image Is Tarnished

By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat [Pennsylvania]
June 20, 2003

With great flourish and sweeping promises, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops one year ago vowed to tackle the issue of clerical sex abuse head-on.

Bishops, including Joseph Adamec of Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese, pledged to tell all, purge all and cooperate with a lay oversight panel.

What a difference a year makes.

Now, what was scheduled to be a run-of-the-mill national bishops' conference in St. Louis this week, instead is a proving ground for the Church's image.

The three-day agenda was revised so that today is now designated as "prayerful reflection" for the bishops, with no other business to be conducted.

Indeed, the rosy picture of progress against sex abuse of children painted in Johnstown earlier this week by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may be just that - a picture, and not reality, say victim and church activists.

At their closed-door sessions this week, Adamec and other bishops are wrestling with these setbacks:

. The resignation of Arizona Bishop Thomas O'Brien after he was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run accident. The accident occurred not long after he entered an agreement with Phoenix prosecutors to avoid facing charges on sex abuse cover-ups.

. The resignation of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating from a national review board created to monitor sex abuse reforms and his stinging comparison of bishops to secretive Mafia crime figures.

. The failure of many bishops, including Adamec, to fill out abuse questionnaires for fear that the information may result in financial and legal liabilities. The Altoona-Johnstown diocese now faces seven legal actions representing 10 victims.

While in Johnstown on Tuesday, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory predicted that such high-profile dissension and negative publicity won't deter the Church in efforts to protect children from abusing priests.

But some attorneys and social scientists predict the Church hierarchy has become even more secretive and entrenched than it was before the scandal surfaced nationally 18 months ago.

Gregory was in town to speak at the annual Foundation for Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown fund-raising banquet, on the eve of the national bishops conference.

"Bishop Gregory said that children must be shielded, and that the welfare of victims must come first, and I wholeheartedly agree that needs to happen," said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"But the truth is that we're not seeing it. Old habits die hard," he said in a telephone interview from his Chicago office.

"I would like to share his rosy optimism, but it's important to understand that not all motion is forward motion. Just because some steps have been taken does not mean that real change is happening. There's a great teal of talk and posturing, but little substantive progress," he said.

Another victims' group, Survivors First, also has taken the position that the bishops' efforts for the past year have failed to rid sex abuse by priests or rebuild trust within the Church.

Now, the group will do its own monitoring of bishops and how they comply with their own national policies, said the group's founder, Paul Baier, who yesterday unveiled the group's new Web site,, which will track progress by each diocese in combating sex abuse.

Political scientist Ray Wrabley, associate professor at University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, said recent high-profile events like Keating's resignation will take its toll on the Church as an institution.

"I'm not an expert on the Church, but if you look at an analogy, the congressional scandals over campaign financing would be close in that it certainly tarnished the institution," he said in a telephone interview from his campus office.

"The sex abuse issue has been divisive within the Catholic Church and within the Catholic community. In some ways it is a clash between our democratic culture and our religious institutions

"The Church is facing the same demands for accountability that a democratic institution would be," he said.

"The failures are failures of the hierarchy. They don't want to appear to be succumbing to public pressure, but had they acted sooner to remove abusive priests, it would have been better."

Marci Hamilton, a legal scholar and former Supreme Court assistant, said the Church is trying to invoke a double standard to keep sex abuse a secret.

"The Church and other proponents of the church autonomy doctrine are invoking a very different version of the separation of church and state - one that would separate the Church from the rule of law," she wrote in a recent column published on SNAP's Web site.

Hamilton, former assistant to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said she wasn't surprised that the Church is fighting to keep the incidents secret.

"The Church's actions suggest it will only be dragged kicking and screaming to reform. Not only is its reluctance unethical, it's also unwise. As it struggles to resist reforms the public knows are crucial, it only alienates current and potential churchgoers," she said.

The mother of a sex abuse victim in Ebensburg, whose complaint along with other parents sparked the removal of a priest in the 1980s, said Bishop Gregory's optimistic assessment of progress is off base.

"It's time for all of this to stop. This secretiveness, this reluctance to divulge information, is wrong. To do anything other than what is right is an insult to our intelligence and to the intelligence of the victims," she said in an interview in Ebensburg.

"These men have to be prosecuted," the woman said on condition of anonymity.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.