New tensions within the U.S. Roman Catholic leadership surfaced Tuesday with the release of previously confidential letters in which an independent national review board on sexual abuse warned bishops that they risked "backsliding" in their commitment to protecting children from pedophile priests.
In a scathing late March letter to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Review Board's interim chair, Anne M. Burke, scolded bishops for taking a "business-as-usual" approach as the clerical sexual-abuse scandal faded from headlines. Burke, an Illinois Appellate Court justice, said bishops had "manipulated" the board and denied it information on future monitoring.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Correction
Catholic Church -- An article in Wednesday's Section A on a debate among U.S. Roman Catholic leaders about efforts to end sexual abuse misquoted a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The article reported that Msgr. Frank Maniscalco said the bishops were committed to ending sexual abuse. The incorrect quote said, "They've indicated on the first order in willing to be accountable." Actually, the quote should have read, "They've indicated by the first audit [a willingness] to be accountable." The audit checked Catholic dioceses for compliance with measures to prevent sexual abuse.
At the same time, bishops argued about whether to delay a second audit by the review board on how well dioceses were complying with tough new policies meant to stop the sexual abuse of minors.
In a Feb. 2 letter, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York urged a delay in talks about the new audit until a November bishops' meeting. Egan was criticized in the 2003 audit for failing -- in his former post as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. -- to remove a priest who faced accusations.
Burke said Egan's letter to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the bishops' conference, drew a sharp response from Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who opposed waiting until November.
Mahony warned that he and other California bishops would not attend a national meeting in June unless bishops took up the issue at that time, Burke said. Mahony was in Rome on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. An aide in Los Angeles said staff would have to check with Mahony before commenting.
Following that exchange, the executive committee of the bishops' group decided to include the audit and related issues on the June agenda. However, Burke and a spokesman for the bishops' group said Tuesday that there was no indication whether the prelates would merely discuss the audit or authorize it.
"I'm in limbo, literally," Burke said. But she and Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, a related agency that was born out of the scandal, said a June authorization by bishops would allow the 2004 audit to be completed by year's end.
On Tuesday, nine previously confidential letters, including Burke's and others from bishops, were posted by the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic paper, on its website. The Mahony letter was not among those, but Egan's was.
The public disclosure of the letters came 11 months after the review board's then-chairman, Frank A. Keating, accused some bishops of acting like the Mafia for refusing to confront sexual abuse within the church and for withholding evidence from prosecutors. He soon resigned.
In her March 29 letter, Burke complained that the bishops had withheld the fact that a delay in the 2004 audit was being discussed. She said the board was unaware of the possible delay during its Feb. 27 news conference in Washington, where it announced results of its 2003 audit.
"It is hard to reach any other conclusion than that the failure to tell the [review board] of these matters in a timely fashion was to make sure that they did not come up in any discussions with the national media on Feb. 27," Burke wrote to Gregory. "In short, we were manipulated."
The 2003 audit reported that 4,392 priests had been accused of molesting as many as 10,667 children since 1950. It also found that about 10% of the nation's 195 dioceses were not in compliance with the church's landmark 2002 charter to prevent sexual abuse.
"It would be shameful if we were now to discover that we were wrong about the commitment of our bishops," wrote Burke. "Needless to say, should that occur, the National Review Board would feel personally betrayed by such actions. But even more importantly, the wounded people in the pews will find this reprehensible."
Some of the nation's leading bishops accused the board of overstepping its authority, and said they were embarrassed by Burke's letter. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver wrote to Burke that the review board assumed "the worst motives on the part of the bishops."
In Washington, Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, a spokesman for the bishops' conference, said Tuesday that bishops were committed to ending sexual abuse and that any discussion was over how best to do so. "They've indicated on the first order in willing to be accountable. It's not a question of fundamental issues. It's a question of how to put things in place," he said.
But Burke and other board members, including Leon E. Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, said the letters pointed to ongoing tension between the bishops and the review board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection.
"It obviously is indicative that there are some members of the [Catholic] hierarchy who simply do not want to accept the realities that were published in our report. They want to basically set it aside," Panetta said. "Obviously, with that group of bishops, our relations at best are strained."