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DERRICK Z. JACKSON

The church's scorecard sleight of hand

THE MASSACHUSETTS Catholic Conference is doing just what President Bush hoped for. Bush, according to the National Catholic Reporter, asked the Vatican to light a fire under American bishops to be more aggressive on social issues such as gay marriage. Here in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage, the bishops, via the conference, are sending scorecards to the priests of the state's 710 parishes. If the priests so choose, they can pass them out to remind parishioners which politicians on Beacon Hill voted for and against a ban on gay marriage.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference is the legislative lobbying arm for the archbishop of Boston and the bishops of Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester. The conference, according to its state mandate, is concerned with "social issues affecting the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of all human lives."

Of course, that dignity and sanctity is not extended by this group to gay and lesbian people. In January, the bishops mailed 1 million letters to Catholics across the state, urging them to fight against gay marriage. "Will our efforts inspire more people to talk to their legislators, which in turn may encourage other legislators to do the right thing? We hope so," the four bishops said in a joint letter. "The stakes are too high, and we will have to answer to God for anything we fail to do. Thus we urge the faithful to read the mailer and to contact their legislators."

The state Supreme Judicial Court, citing America's history of discrimination, concluded that a ban on gay marriage "works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason." The Catholic Church plowed forward on its irrational quest. Its efforts surely helped prod a Massachusetts Legislature, which is 67 percent Catholic, put a ban on gay marriage before the voters in 2006. The 2006 vote would allow for civil unions, but that still amounts to a second-class, segregated way of viewing gay and lesbian couples.

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders said 1,700 gay and lesbian couples across Massachusetts filed for marriage licenses in just the first week of legalization. If the 2006 vote really happens, it will tell just how much the voters believe in the dignity of the human person. What will the state do to the hundreds, if not thousands of gay and lesbian couples who will get married over the next two and a half years? Haul them off the street and rip off their rings?

The ferocity with which the church in Massachusetts is gunning for gay marriage makes one wonder if this is a diversion. Even as the scorecards go out, the national church continues to struggle for credibility on its handling of the sexual abuse of children by priests. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting in a private retreat this week in suburban Denver.

In the winter, a national review board appointed by the bishops reported 10,667 claims of child abuse between 1950 and 2002, with 4,392 priests -- 4 percent of Catholic clergy -- being accused of some form of molestation. The panel said the bishops systematically covered up abuse. The settlements from the scandal have soared past $650 million. The Archdiocese of Boston was the nation's worst offender.

At the time the report was released, Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, proudly proclaimed, "This is a terrible history. But it is history."

That pronouncement of finality unnerved many victims of the abuse scandal and their families. Indeed, after the release of the report, the bishops began dragging their robes at any further auditing of dioceses around the nation to see if they were complying with reforms to prevent future child sexual abuse. Several bishops complained that audits are expensive and intrusive. The sloth so irritated the chairwoman of the national review board, Anne Burke, that she wrote a stinging letter to Gregory.

Burke, who normally is an appellate judge in Illinois, wrote that members of the national review board were "disheartened by this apparent decision to go back to `business as usual" after having "dodged the bullet" of extensive national criticism. She wrote that if the bishops were not vigilant about abuse, the review board "would feel personally betrayed by such actions. But even more important, the wounded people in the pews will find this reprehensible."

In short, Burke declared, on behalf of review board members, "we were manipulated."

The fallout from that letter has reportedly made the audits a topic of discussion at this week's bishops' retreat. Burke, who is stepping down as the chair in two weeks, has said, "Until one can actually say children are safe in every diocese in the United States, the audits should continue." Until she spoke up, the bishops were already moving on to other things, such as manipulating the fight against gay marriage.

The bishops have put themselves in the ugly position of blocking loving people from the altar while offering no assurance that trusting children are not horribly stripped of their dignity.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is jackson@globe.com.

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