Bishops Unable to Shake Shroud of Shattered Trust
Catholic Leaders Started Meeting on Defensive, End It with Hope

By Jessica McBride
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel [St. Louis MO]
June 21, 2003

St. Louis - U.S. Catholic bishops made extraordinary concessions a year ago to head off a mutiny of the faithful at the height of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

When they came to St. Louis last week for their first annual spring meeting since then, they were determined to focus on other topics, such as a new directory for deacons. They were insistent that they had made progress implementing the promises of the landmark charter they passed on abusive priests a year ago in Dallas.

Instead, the nation's Catholic leadership found itself again defensively fielding questions about the abuse controversy, unable to escape a perception that it has not repaired shattered trust.

The week did not start out well. As Father Thomas Reese, a national Catholic scholar, put it: "These guys were having incredibly bad luck. These guys should not go to Vegas."

First, it was the resignation Monday of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating from a lay review board established by the bishops last year (he likened them to the Mafia). Then it was one of their own, the bishop of Phoenix, being criminally charged with a fatal hit-and-run Tuesday. Then came the pressing questions at the first day of their conference Thursday about why some of them, particularly those in California, haven't returned a survey requested by the review board documenting more than 50 years of abuse cases.

Still, by the end of the three-day conference, many bishops left town feeling as though they had at least managed to right a capsizing boat.

"I think there has been a turnaround," Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan said. "We were afraid there had been a real step back, then we found out it was only a stumble, not a fall on the face."

Bishops said they were buoyed by other review board members distancing themselves from Keating's remarks. Had the remaining board members shared Keating's views, it would have spelled disaster, Dolan said.

Bishops were pleased they had ironed out a compromise that enabled California bishops to say they would now submit the surveys. They were fortified by prayer sessions.

Abuse survivors disappointed

But representatives of abuse survivors' groups, who were not allowed into the conference, in contrast to last year's emotional scene of confrontations between their members and bishops, left St. Louis feeling let down.

Peter Isely, Milwaukee leader of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said: "In some ways, St. Louis is more important than Dallas because the real work has to be done now. But the issue is in a cul-de-sac. The same issues are at stake: transparency, accountability."

Bishops, survivors and Catholic observers said the truer test of the Dallas promises will come not in St. Louis but in the months ahead.

"Right now, their grade is incomplete," Reese said. "The semester is not over."

There will be a series of hurdles that will be crucial. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, needs to select a replacement for Keating who is perceived as independent. "The new chair has to be someone who is credible," Reese said.

The bishops must cooperate with the audits of every diocese that will begin shortly and turn in the review board's surveys that are due at the end of this month.

By the end of the year, the review board is expected to hand in an unprecedented public report that outlines each diocese's successes or failures, including the results of both the audits and the surveys.

That is the moment, bishops said, when their individual efforts will be judged. It is something several of them said they relished, as they feel the majority of bishops who are complying are also being tarred because of the recalcitrance of a few.

"The results could be embarrassing for some," Dolan said. "They will name names."

In addition, the Vatican will have to select a strong permanent leader for the Boston Diocese, the early epicenter of the clergy abuse scandal.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles - who engaged in a war of words with Keating last week - asked the bishops Saturday to consider the surveys and audits merely phase one. He asked for another accounting in a year or so when civil and criminal cases are concluded. His suggestion passed.

Mahony told his fellow bishops in the only open-session discussion of clergy abuse at the conference (unlike last year, when the entire agenda was devoted to it): "I've never seen the bishops more focused and determined and filled with desire to deal with this issue."

In a report delivered Saturday, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops' internal ad-hoc committee on sexual abuse, said: "Since that historic meeting last year, a monumental effort has been made to fulfill the promises of that charter. . . . We do not take too much comfort in that. There is still a long road ahead of us."

Flynn said several hundred abusing priests have been removed from the ministry since Dallas and church law was changed to strengthen bishops' ability to "act effectively and expeditiously when addressing these cases." But, he said, the bishops believe that "outreach is best done at the local level - individual bishops across the country have made great efforts to meet with victims/survivors."

But survivors' groups in St. Louis couldn't get in the conference, and their leaders believe the Vatican watered down the charter.

Gregory, the conference president, said bishops felt they "needed to do work with each other," so survivors were not invited. But Isely said survivors were promised an ongoing local and national dialogue.

He bristled at comments made Saturday by Flynn, who said the committee on sexual abuse he leads had not met with SNAP, the survivors' group, and other victims' groups the past year because Flynn believes interaction with victims should be a "pastoral experience - not a circus-like atmosphere."

"That's insulting. It's outrageous, and he should apologize," Isely said.

"We were disappointed there wasn't more dialogue," said Luise Cahill Dittrich, communications director for Voice of the Faithful, a national Catholic reform group.

She pointed out that survivors' groups have not seen the surveys. "It's all secret."

There were other public relations miscues.

The pope's emissary to the American church opened the conference with a statement that some thought implied the moral crisis facing the church was a misperception. Some bishops were embarrassed by the presence at the conference of retired Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, the early focus of the scandal for transferring abusive priests, said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

Bishops waited until the end of day one before addressing the resignation of Keating or the arrest of Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix, and then let review board members (mostly bombastic attorney Robert S. Bennett) do the heavy lifting.

It was Bennett who told the media that Keating's remarks were "inappropriate" and that the church was not a criminal organization. Asked a similar question, Gregory had given a lengthy, roundabout answer.

And what was for the bishops the stellar public relations moment of the conference - a news conference given by the articulate Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, named interim director of Phoenix after cleaning house in Santa Fe - did not come until midday Friday.

"Someone like Mike Sheehan, they should have had him up there on the first day," Reese said. "They are muddling through. And there is no trust."

Because there was still no evident trust, the bishops found their motives questioned everywhere they turned. Some of the bishops were able to remain consistently positive, such as Dolan. Some of them were periodically testy, such as Chicago's George. And some felt misunderstood, such as Robert Morlino, incoming bishop of Madison and current bishop in Helena, Mont.

"What movement are you looking for that hasn't happened?" George snapped at a reporter.

Morlino said: "We want to do everything necessary and possible" to deal with the abuse issue. "That's not being translated to the public."


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