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Bishops Reaffirm Resolve to End Abuse

At a U.S. meeting, they say they have adopted reforms. But a victims group expresses doubt.

June 22, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, buffeted by controversy and new challenges to their credibility, declared Saturday that they have not wavered in their commitment to end sexual abuse in the church, but acknowledged they have a long way to go.

"There is still a long road ahead of us," Archbishop Harry J. Flynn told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the closing day of its semiannual meeting here. "Our commitment has not wavered. We have made a pledge to our people and to the people of this nation and especially to the vulnerable ones and we will keep that pledge."

Despite the reassurances, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nationwide victim support and advocacy organization, said they remained unconvinced.

"We keep hearing lofty words from the bishops," Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the group said Saturday. "What we're going to do is judge them by their actions, not by their words."

A night earlier at a convention of the survivors group about a mile away at another hotel, Mark Serrano asked an estimated 200 delegates, "Who shall we count on? Three hundred men in black? Or shall we rely on ourselves and demand change from the civil authorities, and rely on the people in the pews with children who must take the church back?"

The end of the bishops' meeting capped three days of what some bishops called soul-searching and angst at a time when they had hoped they would be well on their way to putting the crisis behind them. Instead they felt compelled to reassure Catholics that they are good to their word -- and to list accomplishments during the last year.

"In all my years in the conference, I've never seen bishops so focused, so determined and so filled with desire to deal with this issue," Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said in floor remarks. In a hallway interview, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said, said the bishops are "committed vigorously" to carrying out the reforms in their dioceses.

Last year at this time in Dallas, they overwhelmingly approved a landmark master plan -- the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth -- for bringing an end to sexual abuse by priests and deacons that has marred the church.

A new National Review Board called for in the charter has been created to hold bishops to their promises of reform in each of their 195 U.S. dioceses. The board hired a high-ranking FBI official, Kathleen L. McChesney, as director of its Office of Child and Youth Protection. The board also began a study to determine the extent and causes of sexual abuse in the church, going back to the 1950s. In addition, an estimated 500 priests have been removed from their ministries in keeping with the bishops' promise in Dallas of zero tolerance of abusive priests. Sexual abuse prevention training sessions and audits of dioceses are beginning.

Although progress has been made, in the last week the bishops received new blows to their credibility. Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix was arrested in a felony hit-and-run case in which a pedestrian was killed. O'Brien resigned his post and Pope John Paul II quickly named a temporary fill-in, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M.

Days earlier, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating angrily resigned as chairman of the National Review Board. Keating charged that although most bishops were cooperating, several, including all the bishops of California, were resisting the board's survey efforts. Keating compared uncooperative bishops, as well as those he said were fighting prosecutors' efforts to obtain church personnel records of suspected abuses, to "La Cosa Nostra."

Keating's remarks angered some bishops. Mahony called Keating's remarks "off the wall." Others have since said Keating may have been unaware that the reservations the California bishops had about participating were being addressed even as Keating made the Mafia reference in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

In an interview here, McChesney said she did not consider California bishops obstructionist for questioning whether they could readily answer the questions in view of California's strict privacy laws.

"I don't think it would be fair to say that raising issues with regard to privacy is obstructionist," McChesney said. "That's just reasonable thinking."

In any case, the questions have been resolved and California bishops have said they will fully participate in the survey.

Mahony won unanimous approval Saturday from the bishops in urging the review board and others to consider a second phase of the study, to begin in one or two years. He said that study would gather much more complete information on the extent of sexual abuse in the American church because there would be more time to gather it, and because cases now in civil and criminal courts will have been resolved by that time. In California, an extension on filing civil suits in the cases will expire in December.

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