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Spotlight Report

Abuse crisis exploited, prelates say

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/20/2003


Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston, listens during the meeting of Catholic bishops in St. Louis. (AP Photo)

 Related stories
Bishops may hold national council

ST. LOUIS -- The embattled Catholic bishops of the United States, meeting during an extraordinary week in which a leading layman resigned his church post after comparing some bishops to criminals and an Arizona bishop was charged with a felony, yesterday insisted that their occasional lapses are being exploited by interest groups that don't like the teachings of the church.

From the pope's top representative in the United States to rank-and-file bishops from around the country, the bishops said they believe they are not getting enough credit for the progress they have made over the last year in responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

''We all know that we are going through difficult times and that some real problems within the church have been magnified to discredit the moral authority of the church,'' Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo said in a speech at the opening session of the bishops' semiannual meeting yesterday. Montalvo is the apostolic nuncio, the pope's ambassador to the United States.

Throughout the day, other bishops added their voices to that theme. ''It's an incontrovertible fact, just from reading newspaper articles, magazine columns, opinion pieces . . . that many have chosen this crisis to move forward their own agenda,'' Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh said in an interview.

And Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas said during a press conference that ''any time we as a church are sinful publicly, are showing feet of clay, it's an opportunity for persons who don't like what we teach.''

''The church always comes under scrutiny, and when we're not faithful to our mission, then that hurts our credibility,'' he said.

Some protesters, representing Catholic lay people and victims of abuse by priests, suggested that the bishops have kept few of their promises since the crisis exploded.

But the bishops rejected that analysis. ''To come along and suggest that the bishops aren't doing anything is an outrageous statement,'' Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago told reporters after a press conference broke up. ''It's totally unjust. The facts are that the bishops have moved and have moved dramatically.''

Some bishops argued that the news media have focused unfairly on the Catholic Church, when other institutions have also had employees who abused children. Others argued that the press has ignored the good deeds of the church.

''The focus has distorted the public image of the church, whatever the reasons are,'' Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn said at a midday press conference. ''Nobody knows the real story of what this church has done'' for housing, the mentally ill, and the homeless, he said.

Sullivan also took a swipe at the media and, in particular, the New York Times, saying that ''this flood-the-zone approach has distorted the church.''

The phrase ''flood the zone'' was used by former New York Times editor Howell Raines to describe devoting significant resources to significant stories. Raines resigned earlier this month amid questions about the conduct of two Times reporters.

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis criticized what he called ''overgeneralization and telescoping'' in coverage of the church. ''It's disappointing that we're not addressing the issue as it affects our public school system and other aspects of society,'' he said.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he is persuaded that all bishops are committed to protecting children, but that they must earn back their credibility, diocese by diocese. ''This is a serious moment in the life of the church, and only the most naive would have anticipated that it would have been solved in the twinkling of an eye,'' he said at a late-afternoon press conference. ''There's an awful lot that the Catholic Church in the United States is doing, is doing well, is doing effectively, and is doing with great spirit and great generosity, and, if anything, we'd like that to be recognized.''

The bishops spent their afternoon meeting behind closed doors, peppering members of their National Review Board with questions about a survey the board is conducting to determine the scope and nature of sexual abuse of minors by priests over the last five decades. Numerous bishops have questioned the methodology or content of the questionnaire, which the board and the bishops have declined to make public, but the bishops appeared ready to participate in the effort.

The bishops of California, who had decided for a time not to participate in the survey because of concerns about privacy and liability, said they had changed their minds and would begin filling out the surveys next week. They reversed their stand after the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which has been hired by the review board to conduct the study, agreed to allow California bishops to encode their data so it will be unusable in the many lawsuits against their dioceses in that litigious state.

''The California Catholic Conference of Bishops is pleased to report that their concerns regarding California privacy law as it relates to the John Jay survey have been addressed,'' the California bishops said in a written statement distributed to reporters. ''This survey is an important part of our overall efforts to protect children and restore trust.''

The study will attempt to determine the number of offenders and victims and the number of incidents of abuse, as well as the amount of money that has been expended for therapy for victims and offenders, legal fees, and legal settlements, according to Kathleen L. McChesney, the executive director of the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection.

One member of the review board, lawyer Robert S. Bennett, defended the bishops against the allegation by the former review board chairman, Frank Keating, that the behavior of some bishops resembles ''the model of a criminal organization.'' Keating resigned Monday, but did not retract his remarks.

''The National Review Board does not believe that there is a criminal organization afoot, and we do not associate ourselves with those remarks,'' Bennett said at the late-afternoon press conference.

''We have found already some bishops making terrible errors of judgment, and sometimes more, but to suggest that this is a criminal organization is beyond the pale,'' he said. ''We're going to hold the bishops accountable. We're going to call it the way it is. But I think this kind of inflammatory rhetoric does not contribute to the protection of young children.''

Bennett said that after yesterday's meeting, he is increasingly optimistic that most bishops will participate in the survey. He said his board will publicly name any who do not.

''No questions have been changed, and no expectations have been lessened,'' he said.

Bishop Richard G. Lennon of Boston said in an interview that he had a number of concerns about the survey, including how it would treat unresolved cases and how it defines certain terms. But he said that ''by all means'' he expects that the Archdiocese of Boston will answer the questionnaire.

Wuerl also said that he had concerns about the questionnaire, but that he planned to fill it out. He said that because of the general paucity of data about the prevalence of abuse of minors, he fears that people will find it difficult to put data about the church in context.

''I am going to participate, but my hope is that all of this discussion is going to lead to some recognition that whatever data is collected, it has to be nuanced sufficiently to be true,'' he said.

Among the groups monitoring the bishops' proceedings are the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and Voice of the Faithful, a Newton-based lay organization.

''I think a lot of bishops hope that the crisis is just going to go away,'' Steve Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, said at an early morning press conference. ''We believe they hope Voice of the Faithful and the laity are just going to forget about this, but that isn't going to happen.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/20/2003.
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