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Spotlight Report

Bishop urges fast conclusion to Boston suits

Conference head seeks 'healing'

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/22/2003

ST. LOUIS -- The ongoing crisis of confidence in the Archdiocese of Boston is weighing on the Catholic Church throughout the United States, and the national church would be helped by a settlement of the lawsuits in Boston and the appointment of a new archbishop there, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday.

At a news conference at the close of the semiannual meeting of the bishops' conference, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory echoed comments made throughout the week by bishops from around the country who said that they are closely watching the situation in Boston, which has been wracked by revelations that more than 100 priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors the last several decades.

"The situation in the Archdiocese of Boston certainly weighs heavily upon the hearts of the people of that local church, and without a doubt the resolution of the cases there, and the healing process -- the more quickly it can be resolved, the better for that local church, but [also] let's face it, for the church in the United States," Gregory said. "The bishops of the United States would concur that, to bring healing, that particular thorny issue needs resolution."

Gregory said he believes that settling the legal claims brought by more than 500 people is an important priority for the archdiocese and its interim administrator, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who has been leading the archdiocese since Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned in December. Lennon told reporters that he expects the archdiocese to make a settlement offer this week.

Gregory said he did not know when the pope might appoint an archbishop for Boston.

"As far as the appointment of the new archbishop, I am sure that the Holy See is well aware of the need to address that and is taking all due precaution to make sure it happens in a timely fashion," he said.

Throughout the three-day conference, numerous bishops said they have been watching with concern the crisis in Boston, which has been the epicenter of the abuse scandal since January 2002, when the Globe reported details of the archdiocese's handling of the case of a serial pedophile, the Rev. John J. Geoghan.

"They obviously have to find somebody who is going to be able to step into that situation, help make sure it is all resolved, settled, and start the life of that church [of Boston] again," Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, said yesterday. "One of the things we have found over the centuries is that the people are quite resilient, when there have been difficulties and problems, and their faith remains strong."

Many of the bishops who have been mentioned as possible successors to Law, including Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the US Military Services, Archbishop Justin F. Rigali of St. Louis, and Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, found themselves fielding questions from reporters. Each, in different ways, managed to reveal nothing about his own future.

"Anybody would be complimented, and I think they should be complimented, to have anyone think they could serve as large and as historic a church as Boston," Wuerl said in an interview Thursday. "Whoever goes to Boston, the Holy See will make a choice that they feel would serve that church well."

The bishops did not take any actions related to the sex abuse crisis but spent several sessions talking about issues related to the crisis.

On Thursday, they met in private with members of a church-appointed national review board to discuss concerns some bishops had about a study the board is doing on the historic scope and nature of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Both bishops and board members said after the discussion that they are now confident that most, if not all, bishops will cooperate with the study, which is scheduled to be released by January.

On Friday, again in private, the bishops held a daylong "prayerful reflection" on issues that might form the basis for a plenary council, an extraordinary gathering of bishops, priests, and laypeople to discuss the state of the church in the United States. The bishops are divided over whether such a council would be helpful and plan to continue their discussion during a retreat in Denver next June.

Yesterday, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis gave a report to the bishops in an open session yesterday in which he declared that much progress has been made over the year since the bishops met in Dallas and vowed to remove all abusive priests from ministry and to recommit the church to protecting children from sexual abuse.

Flynn, chairman of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, called the abuse scandal "perhaps the worst crisis in the history of the church in our country" and said that despite a "monumental effort" at change, "there is still a long road ahead of us."

Flynn said that, over the last year, "several hundred priests" have been removed from ministry because they had abused minors, "and this has been very, very painful."

He said the church has begun auditing dioceses to ensure they are complying with a new national child protection policy for the church; has launched several studies; has worked to make sure that religious order priests are regulated in the same way as diocesan priests; and has tried to reach out to victims.

"Individual bishops across the country have made great efforts to meet with victim-survivors and their families and to provide pastoral care that is so needed," he said. "It must be said that these efforts are not always successful. Sometimes, because of our shortcomings, but also at times due to the climate of litigation, outreach can be seriously inhibited."

Flynn urged the bishops not to take an overly legalistic approach to victims, saying that bishops "should not allow litigation to get into the way of pastoral care."

That point was also made by Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, who has been serving as temporary administrator of the diocese of Phoenix since last week, when Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien resigned after being charged in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

"We're all trying to make up for mistakes that maybe were made in the past -- bishops who made poor choices in the past," Sheehan told reporters Friday. He said that in his experience, which included meeting with 150 alleged abuse victims in the scandal-wracked New Mexico diocese, "it was much better to be too conciliatory than listening too much to attorneys. If somebody said they were a victim, I called."

Both Flynn and Sheehan said they were too busy to meet with alleged victims in St. Louis. Flynn said at a news conference yesterday that he had not met with victims during the St. Louis conference because he didn't want "a circus atmosphere" and that those meetings are more helpful "on a local level, in an environment of healing . . . and conversation."

Throughout the conference, bishops faced criticism from several interest groups that have sent delegations to St. Louis, including the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, Voice of the Faithful, and Call to Action. The groups' representatives are not allowed to attend the bishops conference, but in a string of news conferences and news releases they criticized the bishops for insufficient cooperation with public authorities, excessive secrecy, and inadequate attention to victims.

But many of the bishops said the criticism is unjust and expressed confidence that they are making progress in stemming the crisis that has roiled the church over the last year and a half.

"The fog seems to be lifting, and we can see a little bit more clearly," Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Worcester said Friday. "There's a great determination in this body to do this, and do it well."

Bishops routinely acknowledged that the church's stature has suffered.

"Obviously this has been a terrible blow to the church, but nonetheless the church throughout the centuries has been through many purifications, and these are healthy," Mahony said. "We obviously had a very serious problem that had to be dealt with, and I think that the church will emerge from it much more true to our mission, much more humble, and committed to working with society on big issues like this."

In his closing remarks to reporters yesterday, Gregory reiterated the church's pledge to do better, saying "real healing" must take place at the local level, and that bishops throughout the country are committed to doing that.

"A year ago . . . we began a yearlong process of responding to a very serious moment in the life of the church in the United States," he said. "We, my brother bishops and I, remain committed to following through with all we promised, first of all to our people, second of all to ourselves, and in a very public way to the people of the United States."

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

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/22/2003.
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