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Bishops Meet in Somber Gathering

Arrest of leading cleric and resignation of key review board member cloud conference.

June 20, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — With prayers and sadness, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops convened Thursday for what one leading prelate called "a pretty sober gathering," determined to regroup after a tumultuous week of controversy.

The bishops defended their record and accomplishments on fighting sexual abuse in the year since they met in Dallas and adopted a landmark set of rules to prevent priests from molesting children. They vowed to press ahead to fulfill their commitments.

But they were clearly on the defensive, reeling from the angry resignation of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as chairman of their National Review Board on sexual abuse and the resignation of one of their colleagues, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix, who received Vatican permission to leave his post after he was arrested on charges of felony hit-and-run driving in an incident that killed a pedestrian.

The turmoil "is undoubtedly making this a pretty sober gathering at this point. It is in my heart, anyway," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told reporters.

Even the statement from Pope John Paul II's envoy, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the papal nuncio, seemed to express the somber mood.

"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," Montalvo said. "Nevertheless, it is precisely in times such as these that as bishops we must stand together as men of faith."

The bishops should not lose heart, but endure and follow the example of saints and others in the church over the ages to never capitulate, Montalvo said.

"The nuncio wanted to remind us that, yes, even this too will come to a fortuitous conclusion, by God's grace," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the bishops conference.

The bishops are scheduled to spend today behind closed doors to reflect and meditate on the state of the church and its position in American culture.

But outside the meetings, it was clear that the arrest of O'Brien in particular had shaken many bishops.

"We're sad because of the events that have transpired, sad for the whole tragic situation involving a bishop and the man who lost his life," said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.

"Any time we as a church, as members of the church, and particularly those in leadership, are sinful publicly, are showing feet of clay, it's an opportunity for persons who don't like what we teach to say things like we're hypocrites," said Bishop Coadjutor Joseph A. Galante of Dallas.

The meeting was not supposed to be this way. After passing a reform program last year in Dallas, the bishops were looking forward to progress reports this year.

And from their standpoint, there has been some progress.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests gave the bishops a "D" grade for their work in the past year.

But the two dozen demonstrators from church reform and victims advocacy groups who stood outside the hotel where the meetings took place made much less of an impression than the impassioned speeches the bishops heard from victims a year ago.

One dispute between bishops and the National Review Board was finally resolved when California's Catholic bishops announced that they would fully cooperate in the board's survey of the nation's 195 dioceses aimed at determining how many priests have been implicated in sexual abuse over the years.

At the same time, Robert Bennett, a member of the review board, said no substantive changes had been made in the survey. "You can take that to the bank," Bennett told reporters. He said the only changes involved how the information is gathered, in order to protect confidentiality.

Three board members met with the bishops and had a "very honest and very cordial discussion" of what the board is trying to do, Bennett said.

"The overwhelming number fully support the board's work," he said, adding that "if we don't get cooperation, we'll name names."

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