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Spotlight Report

Conference debating bishops' accountability

Victims seek sanctions on clerics who didn't oust abusive priests

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 6/13/2002

DALLAS - Faced with the biggest scandal to confront the Catholic Church in the United States, about 300 bishops from throughout the country converged here yesterday and began an unexpected debate over whether to punish bishops who protect sexually abusive priests.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, would not predict how bishops might sanction themselves and did not cite any specific proposals. But he said he expects the issue to be debated as the bishops discuss a new, mandatory national policy aimed at preventing and responding to instances of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Conference leaders strongly suggested that the draft policy released last week would be toughened by week's end.

''The question of accountability of bishops is a burning issue, and I have every reason to believe that particular topic will receive significant debate,'' Gregory said. ''I clearly agree that topic will be a matter that needs discussion.''

The nation's bishops have gathered at a hotel here for an extraordinary meeting to discuss an extraordinary crisis: Over the last six months, since details were reported of how the Archdiocese of Boston transferred Rev. John J. Geoghan despite knowing he had been accused of molesting boys, the scandal has engulfed the nation's largest religious denomination. The church's moral authority and its financial strength have been threatened, and advocates of reform from the left and right have been clamoring for change.

The church has declined to release overall statistics, but lawyers, newspapers, and interest groups have estimated that as many as 1,500 priests have molested children in the last five decades, and many bishops have failed to remove those priests from ministry. Just this year more than 250 priests have been suspended or removed from their jobs over abuse allegations and four US bishops have resigned.

In a series of sessions yesterday afternoon, a subcommittee of bishops and a small group of cardinals met separately with victims of clergy sexual abuse who told the church officials how their lives have been forever damaged at the hands of trusted clerics.

''A lot of pain was expressed, a lot of tears were shed,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, chairman of the bishops' abuse subcommittee, said the sessions with victims made for ''quite an emotional afternoon,'' and he said that, ''every single one of us was touched by that pain today and hopefully our charter will even be more effective because of [that].''

Flynn said he will push to allow more victims to speak to all the bishops during their meeting today.

The scandal has centered on Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, a prominent, influential, and long-serving American prelate who is facing a revolt by the Catholics of his own archdiocese, most of whom tell pollsters they want him to quit.

Law, who has declined to talk with the news media since February, arrived in Dallas by private plane yesterday, and entered the Fairmont Hotel at mid-afternoon, saying virtually nothing but causing a stir. Dallas police officers used a half-dozen patrol bicycles to form a metallic cordon for a phalanx of television news crews and newspaper photographers as Law emerged smiling from a tan sedan. Law reaffirmed Boston's so-called ''zero tolerance'' policy for priest abusers, but otherwise refused to take questions as he was ushered into the restricted-access area of the hotel.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said the cardinal had been scheduled to fly commercially to Dallas, but instead accepted a last-minute offer of a private aircraft from a friend. Morrissey said she did not know who supplied the aircraft.

''The cardinal is looking forward to meeting with his fellow bishops,'' she said. ''I would not describe him as being under siege.''

The bishops' abuse subcommittee planned to meet into the night last night, Flynn said, debating 107 pages of suggested changes. Two points have emerged as particularly controversial: how to hold accountable one-time offenders from the past, and whether to hold accountable bishops who fail to oust abusive priests.

''I think that there will be substantial modifications to the charter as we released it last Tuesday,'' said Flynn.

The draft proposal proposes to ask the pope to defrock any priest who molests a minor in the future, but those priests who have committed only one act of abuse in the past would be exempt. But many bishops, including some prominent cardinals, have suggested a tougher policy, calling for defrocking any priest who ever abused a minor.

''If the bishops and cardinals truly understand the depth of pain and suffering that each of us as victims and our family members have experienced, we believe that their response would be so different,'' said Barbara Blaine, founder and president of SNAP. ''The first thing they would do is put children first and make sure that no child is ever put at risk.''

Bishop Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas, said the bishops who are meeting in his city no longer believe, as many once did, that abusive priests can be cured by treatment or counseling.

''We've learned that rarely is there ever one victim,'' Galante said. ''You can't ever deal with anybody who has true pedophilia. But I don't believe there was malice. I do regret very, very much that in handling these situations, those kinds of mistakes were made and there's nothing that can be said to defend that. There are circumstances, but there can't be excuses.''

Accountability for bishops is a more complex question, because traditionally only the pope can punish bishops. But victims' groups yesterday told bishops they want action on this issue.

''Bishops need to be held accountable for their lack of action,'' said Michael Emerton of Newburyport, Mass., a member of Voice of the Faithful, the Wellesley-based group which, like many other interest groups, sent members to Dallas this week. ''Listening and expressions of concern are not sufficient.''

Galante also wants a discussion about accountability.

'' We have to in some ways be accountable,'' he said. ''To sanction bishops is only the pope's responsibility. The question of peer pressure, the question of honest and open discussion among ourselves, I believe is going to be on the table. And I believe that the whole question of the fact that we call ourselves a college of bishops - we have to be that all the time, when we're right and when we're wrong.''

Although the bishops said they would discuss accountability, they have few options for action, according to Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, the Jesuit weekly. Reese said the most the bishops could do is ask the pope to hold bishops accountable.

The bishops' meeting begins formally today with a speech by Gregory. The bishops plan to hear from victims of clergy sexual abuse, prominent laypeople, and an expert on treating adults who had been victims of sexual abuse as a child. They plan to debate their proposed policy behind closed doors this afternoon and tonight, and then to hold a discussion and vote on adopting the final policy tomorrow.

Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/13/2002.
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