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Sex Abuse Crisis Threatens to Turn Bishops Meeting Into a 'Circus'

Latest shakeups and lack of progress on the issue could derail focus, church leaders say.

June 18, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

When the nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved a master plan a year ago in Dallas to wrest their church from its debilitating sexual abuse crisis, they hoped that they had reached a turning point in what one ranking prelate called their "long and sorrowful journey."

But as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepares to open its spring meeting in St. Louis on Thursday, key figures in the church said that in important ways the bishops have not come very far.

Despite progress in implementing some of the reforms called for a year ago, the overall image of bishops themselves remains as bleak as ever.

Developments this week, including the resignation of the plain-spoken chairman of the bishops' National Review Board on sexual abuse and the felony arrest of the bishop of Phoenix in a fatal hit-and-run driving incident, have only added to their problems.

"I don't think the bishops have even begun to rehabilitate their corporate image," said Father Richard P. McBrien, author and professor at the University of Notre Dame. "The damage that was done to the credibility of the bishops in the course of the revelations last year has not been undone in any degree at all."

Father Andrew Greeley, a Catholic columnist and one of the church's leading authorities on public opinion research, said the National Review Board will probably emerge with its credibility intact, if bruised, simply by doing the job bishops asked it to do. The credibility of the bishops, however, is another matter.

"The board will get out of the present imbroglio by continuing to do its work responsibly, with some quiet. How the bishops get out, I don't know," Greeley said.

Only weeks ago the nation's bishops were looking forward to their meeting in St. Louis as a welcome respite from the crisis atmosphere experienced a year ago in Dallas, when record numbers of reporters descended on the conference at the height of the sexual abuse scandal.

Bishops had hoped to limit their public discussions to a relatively noncontroversial agenda: the training of teachers of catechism and permanent deacons, challenges affecting agriculture and the promotion of collaboration between clergy and women.

There was to be only a brief progress report -- and no news conference afterward.

That has changed. In the aftermath of this week's events, the issue of the bishops' own credibility looms nearly as large as it did in Dallas.

The national victims advocacy group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, has decided to hold its first national convention in St. Louis the same days the bishops are in town. Leading spokespersons for Voice of the Faithful, the lay group that began in Boston in response to the sexual abuse crisis there, also plan to attend. So will a group that offers free legal assistance to accused priests, Opus Bono Sacerdotii.

Now, Greeley said, the St. Louis bishops meeting is going to be "another circus."

"It's bad, bad, bad," he said.

That prospect has caused no little consternation among bishops, particularly because many church officials feel that they actually have made significant progress since the Dallas meeting a year ago.

Kathleen McChesney, a former top-ranking FBI executive, has been hired as executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.

An estimated 500 priests have been removed from ministry by bishops intent on enforcing the church's new "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abuse.

The National Review Board is conducting a survey to determine how many priests have been implicated in abuse.

Nonetheless, bishops continue to confront demands from prosecutors and victims' advocates for more disclosure. Some in the hierarchy consider that demand for "transparency" to be uncomfortable, but necessary. Others, however, believe that outsiders have begun using the sexual abuse crisis to undermine legitimate church institutions.

Those different views were at the heart of the past week's verbal battle between former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating, who resigned Monday as head of the National Review Board, and his critics in the hierarchy, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

The favorable public image of the church's critics galls some church officials. Keating is "being portrayed as some sort of superhero who is being fired by the bishops because he worked too hard," said Tod Tamberg, Mahony's spokesman.

Members of Keating's own board had been displeased with Keating's outspoken remarks for months, Tamberg said. "But it seems for some reason some people are almost eager to ignore the comments of the National Review Board members and are instead using this as a platform to launch new attacks on the bishops."

Still, the criticism continues. Writing from Germany where he is an Air Force chaplain, Father Thomas P. Doyle -- who was all but banished for raising the sexual abuse issue in the 1980s -- said Tuesday that little had changed. Keating had "seen through the smoke screen" that bishops have erected, Doyle said.

In the eyes of church observers, that sort of criticism demonstrates that bishops continue to face a challenge that the president of the bishops conference warned them of last year:

"This crisis is not about a lack of faith in God," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said. "The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds. Only by truthful confession, heartfelt contrition and firm purpose of amendment can we hope to receive the generous mercy of God and the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters."

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