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Spotlight Report

Critics unconvinced of bishops' new promise of openness

By Thomas Farragher and Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 6/18/2002

As US bishops returned to their dioceses this week from their conference in Dallas, carrying a strict policy that banishes any priest who has ever abused any child from active ministry, they also bear with them pledges to renounce a pattern of secrecy that has become synonymous with the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

But critics say that secrecy is deeply ingrained in church culture and that despite the promises, they see little to suggest that the church and its leaders will be more open to public scrutiny.

Until the policy is approved by the Vatican, the bishops have agreed to voluntarily bind themselves to a code of ''transparency and openness'' when they speak to the public, a policy that may appear benign but which critics say has often been nonexistent in many dioceses, including Boston's.

In a hierarchical church in which bishops answer only to the pope, the notion of complete candor may be difficult for prelates to fully embrace, critics say.

Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of Greensburg, Pa., said he understands the skepticism.

''I understand their reluctance to believe us,'' Bosco said of alleged victims and their supporters. ''Now I say watch and see what happens. Don't immediately assume that we're frauds and [don't] assume that every bishop is alike.''

Still, hours after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops conference ended, there was evidence that transparency and openness may be hard to deliver.

For example, access to Cardinal Bernard F. Law was tightly restricted during the Dallas conference, to which he traveled aboard a private aircraft. Also, reporters had to decipher the identity of Law's aviation benefactor through public databases.

The plane is owned by a Mississippi corporation, whose president, Paul S. Minor, confirmed yesterday that he had made it available to Law. His father, retired newspaper columnist W. F. ''Bill'' Minor, is a longtime friend of Law.

Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who told reporters Saturday that ''all of us are committed to implementing this charter,'' chastised journalists who were taking notes during a Mass he celebrated Sunday, comparing them to communist spies he saw in Poland years ago.

Bishop D. Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ind., president of the bishops' conference, told the bishops that some victims regard the secrecy in which church leaders have typically operated as an ''infected wound'' that ''can only be healed by openness, forthrightness, and courage.''

In unusually blunt talk, Gregory told the bishops: ''We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.''

Scott Appleby, a Notre Dame history professor, said the center of the church's problems is the alienation of its leaders from the people in the pews.

''Some commentators say that the root of this scandal is betrayal of purity and fidelity, others say it is the aloofness of the bishops and the lack of transparency and accountability,'' Appleby told the bishops.

''They are both right: To be faithful to the church ... bishops and priests must trust the laity, appropriately share authority with them, and open their financial, legal, administrative practices, and decisions to full visibility,'' he said. ''They must give a compelling account of the faith that is within them and address controversial issues directly, in an open and collaborative spirit.''

Mitchell Garabedian and Roderick MacLeish Jr., two lawyers representing people who say they were abused by priests in the Archidocese of Boston, laughed derisively when asked whether Law had embraced the bishops' promise to be more open. Both say Law and other archdiocesan officials have been less than forthcoming.

MacLeish said the archdiocese continues to stonewall him as he seeks documents for his civil cases against abusive priests and the supervisors who covered up for them.

''The archdiocese is still fighting to prevent the release of documents,'' he said. ''If they're so open, why are they using herculean efforts to block the release of Cardinal Law's deposition? It's all going to come out anyway, so why go to such great effort to block the public release of these things? There's nothing open and transparent about their behavior.''

Phil Saviano, New England coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the church is reaching out more to victims.

He said Law is scheduled to meet soon with two brothers who say they were abused by the late Rev. Joseph E. Birmingham. Saviano said that Bishop Robert E. Mulvee of Providence met recently with a victim and that for the first time, Bishop Joseph J. Gerry of Portland, Maine, will meet soon with a dozen victims.

''It's hard to tell how much is just about improving their image and how much they really want to do it because it's the right thing to do,'' Saviano said.

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing LLC.


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