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Spotlight Report

Top US cleric calls settlements 'critical'

Head of bishops' panel says Boston can set example

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/6/2003

SEATTLE -- The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said settling the hundreds of lawsuits in Boston is an "absolutely critical" step toward reassuring Catholics throughout the nation that the church can move forward from crisis.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory yesterday told a gathering of religion reporters here that he views it as essential for Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston to succeed in his efforts to resolve the more than 500 legal claims pending against the archdiocese.

"Certainly, the healing of the church in Boston because it was the epicenter, although not the only place, where difficulties came to public attention . . . will begin to reassure people that the church is capable of addressing these matters," Gregory said.

"I think a lot of local churches, and a lot of people, will say if they can come to a resolution and a healing and a reconciliation in Boston, then other places that have similar issues will be able to move forward, too."

He spoke at the end of a week in which church and plaintiffs' attorneys in Boston expressed optimism that a settlement may be near, but before a last-minute dispute among lawyers for alleged abuse victims last night forced postponement of a highly anticipated meeting this morning between O'Malley and some alleged abuse victims.

Gregory, the bishop of Belleville, Ill., was the featured speaker at the opening session of the 54th annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association, a trade association of reporters who cover religion for the secular print and broadcast media.

Gregory was elected president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2001, just before the clergy abuse scandal broke open in Boston in January 2002. Under his leadership, the church in the United States last year adopted new guidelines barring abusive priests from the ministry.

The bishop, who is widely credited with acting swiftly to stem an abuse crisis in Belleville by ousting 10 percent of local priests after his arrival in 1994, declined to offer a detailed analysis of what had gone wrong in Boston. But he expressed full confidence in O'Malley, who was installed as archbishop of Boston on July 30 after heading two other dioceses racked by abuse scandals -- in Palm Beach, Fla., and Fall River.

O'Malley "is working very effectively to bring about the resolution of those lawsuits, and I think that's critical . . . because I think until those issues are settled, the next steps towards healing just simply won't get to the front burner," Gregory said.

Gregory said that, just as Boston has become a symbol of the church's problems, it can become a symbol of the possibility of solution.

"As it served as an example of what had happened, I think it will serve as an example of what can happen in response to good, faithful, and spiritually hopeful leadership," he said.

The Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, president of Seattle University, a Jesuit college, said Gregory is correct that resolving the situation in Boston is important for the church nationally.

"My sense is that Catholics don't distinguish much in terms of what's in the news -- they read about Boston and identify it as the Catholic Church, and that impacts their sense of the overall church and the bishops," he said.

Gregory, speaking to an audience that included many reporters who have written extensively about clergy sexual abuse over the past 18 months, also offered sharp criticism of the news media, which he said had failed to put abuse by Catholic priests in historical or societal context.

"The media coverage last year did help the church to take some steps that will wring this terrible stain out of her life, to the extent that sin and crime can ever be fully eliminated," he said. "However, the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community."

Gregory called sexual abuse "a horrid betrayal of [the church's] very nature and mission." But Gregory, who has become increasingly critical of the media's role in the crisis over the last year, suggested that the news coverage often slighted or ignored progress the bishops had made during the 1990s at addressing sexual abuse.

"As this story was too often reported, molesters whose careers of preying on children had already been brought to a close several years before were treated as breaking news," he said. "Even in the midst of a perfect storm of coverage in 2002, most newly reported offenses still went back more than a decade. The public was scarcely ever effectively offered this balancing information."

Gregory said his concern about a lack of perspective in the news media is affecting his attitude toward the release of several church reports in coming months. A National Review Board, appointed by the bishops, is scheduled in December to release an audit examining diocesan compliance with the church's national child protection policy, and is set early next year to release two reports on the scope and causes of the abuse crisis.

He called the impending release of the reports "a communications nightmare," saying "how do we engage in a serious public self-examination of our past on the issue of sexual abuse without engendering a type of sensationalistic coverage of past misconduct that obscures present achievements in eliminating that misconduct?"

He also called on reporters to "cease linking child sexual abuse solely to Catholic clerics."

"I can find only minimal attempts on the part of the media to discover the extent of the problem outside the Catholic priesthood," Gregory said. "Few have suggested that this is also a moment to ask educators, athletic coaches, scouting directors, medical personnel, and other religious personnel to review their own policies and history."

Gregory's remarks were criticized by David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who is in Seattle to observe the religion writers' conference.

"It's somewhat disappointing that he spent so much time blaming the media and praising his colleagues . . . and gave no hint that piecemeal belated steps may not be sufficient," he said.

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


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