Church Sex Abuse Study to Proceed

Holdout Bishops Agree to Cooperate After Researchers Make Changes
Washington Post, June 20, 2003
By Alan Cooperman, Washington Post Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS, June 19 — Roman Catholic bishops from California and several other states agreed today to provide information on the extent of child sexual abuse in the church after researchers promised to make “purely technical” changes in the way the data are collected, organizers of the study said.

The agreement by the holdout bishops, reached behind closed doors at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops here, clears the way for the $250,000 study to proceed without changing its goals, Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett said.

“No questions have been changed, no expectations have been lessened,” said Bennett, a member of the National Review Board, a panel of prominent Catholic lay people established by the bishops a year ago to examine the sex abuse scandal and monitor the bishops’ response to it.

Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating (R) resigned this week as chairman of the 13-member review board. He said that most bishops were cooperating with the survey but that a few were acting like the Mafia in their devotion to secrecy and their resistance to a full accounting of all the sex abuse cases in their dioceses.

Bennett said the remaining members of the board do not agree with Keating’s remarks. “Obviously, we would not be here if bishops had not made mistakes in varying degrees. But to suggest this is a criminal organization is beyond the pale,” he said.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who had engaged in a verbal feud with Keating and had publicly criticized the study as unprofessional, pronounced himself satisfied with the changes.

California’s bishops, who had voted in early May to call for an immediate halt of the study, issued a statement saying they were “impressed with the responsiveness and professionalism” of the researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Next week, each diocese in California will undertake the reporting process for the survey,” the statement said.

In the spring, the researchers sent a lengthy anonymous questionnaire to all 195 U.S. dioceses with the goal of determining how many priests have been accused of sexual abuse since 1950, how many victims they had, how their cases were handled and how much money the church has spent on legal fees, counseling and settlements with victims.

Kathleen L. McChesney, a former FBI official who heads the church’s new Office of Child and Youth Protection, said the researchers agreed today to code some of the information on accused priests to protect their identities while ensuring that they are not counted more than once if they served in multiple dioceses.

No names are used in the survey, and the results are to be made public at the end of the year only in the aggregate, without a diocese-by-diocese breakdown. But bishops in California, Illinois and some other states had questioned whether the priests could be identified by their date of birth, ordination and other details, violating state privacy laws and possibly contributing to lawsuits.

The bishops had planned on a relatively quiet three-day meeting here until they were hit with Keating’s resignation and the arrest of Phoenix’s Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien in connection with a fatal hit-and-run accident.

“What happened in Phoenix over the last several days has greatly affected us all,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the bishops conference.

Gregory offered prayers for the family of the accident victim — Jim Reed, 43, a carpenter who was killed crossing a street in Phoenix last Saturday night — as well as for O’Brien.

Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the pope’s ambassador to the United States, opened the conference by urging the bishops to persevere in the face of adversity. “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,” he said.

That tone was echoed by several bishops at a mid-afternoon news conference. Anytime priests and bishops show “feet of clay, it’s an opportunity for people who don’t like what we teach to say we’re hypocrites,” Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas said.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn said that the sex abuse scandal has “distorted the image of the church” and that “nobody knows the real story of what the church has done” to feed the poor, care for the sick and house the homeless.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the bishops have carried out the core promise they made in Dallas a year ago, removing all past abusers from public ministry, and have not received credit for it.

“There’s a good bit of work still to be done, but it’s procedural. What we promised to do a year ago, we’ve done,” he said.

Victims of sexual abuse took a different position.

Family members and friends of abuse victims who have committed suicide held a silent vigil on a windswept plaza across from the bishops’ hotel in downtown St. Louis. They held photographs of their loved ones to dramatize what they see as the church’s failure to do everything it can to help victims.

“Bishops want to give the impression that everything was taken care of last year. We obviously believe that’s not the case,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which organized the vigil.

Barbara Klump of St. Louis dissolved into tears as she talked about her son, Christopher, who killed himself March 2 at age 30. Her fingers wrapped tightly around a portrait of him in his Marine full dress uniform. “I blame everybody who knew and did nothing,” she said.

Janet Patterson of Conway Springs, Kan., held a collage of photographs of five boys, all alleged victims of a former Wichita priest, Robert K. Larson, who is in prison for child abuse. All five committed suicide, including her son, Eric, who was abused at age 12 and died at age 29 in 1999.

“When the bishops say they have dealt with it, they haven’t even begun to hear from all the people who are still dealing with it every day of their lives,” she said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday June 20, 2003.
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