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Spotlight Report

Bishop raps critics of abuse policy

Calls for unity, warns against 'false prophets'

By Michael Paulson and Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 11/12/2002

Bishop Wilton Gregory at a meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)

Bishop Wilton Gregory's remarks

WASHINGTON - After several weeks of enduring bitter criticism of their plan to revise the national child-protection policy they adopted in Dallas five months ago, the Catholic bishops of the United States began to fight back yesterday.

Led by their president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., they made it clear that they believe that their critics, who include groups representing victims and lay people, have misunderstood or mischaracterized the church's efforts to protect children from abusive priests.

Gregory, who in June sounded a compassionate and contrite tone, was more confrontational yesterday, defending the priesthood and comparing some of the bishops' critics to ''false prophets,'' even as he called for reconciliation and healing within the church.

''Sadly, even among the baptized, there are those at extremes within the church who have chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas,'' Gregory said in an opening address to the semiannual meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''One cannot fail to hear in the distance - and sometimes very nearby - the call of the false prophet, `let us strike the shepherd and scatter the flock.' We bishops need to recognize this call and to name it clearly for what it is.''

Gregory did not specify whom he meant by his criticism, except to say ''there are those outside the church who are hostile to the very principles and teachings that the church espouses and have chosen this moment to advance the acceptance of practices and ways of life that the church cannot and will never condone.''

As in Dallas, this meeting of the bishops is being shadowed by a variety of groups critical of the church's handling of sexually abusive priests - so many critics that the bishops were warned to be careful as they boarded buses to go to Mass last night. Members of two lay groups, Voice of the Faithful, which expresses respect for church teachings, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has not taken a position on church teachings, staked out the lobby of the bishops' hotel, talking with clergy and media. Various other groups that do criticize church positions - such as those advocating the ordination of women, gay rights, and abortion rights - planned news conferences, vigils, or protests.

As the bishops' meeting got underway, Gregory led his fellow prelates in attempting to explain a variety of changes they are poised to make, at the behest of the Vatican, to the child protection policy they approved in June. The bishops acknowledged that the revised policy will not change church law to require that all bishops report allegations of abuse to civil authorities, but said they believed that all American bishops are nonetheless morally bound to report such allegations because of the promise they made in Dallas.

Numerous bishops insisted that they believe that their revised policy will honor their central goal of requiring that all abusive priests be removed from ministry. They said controversial changes that emphasize the purely advisory role of lay boards and the legal rights of accused priests simply restate existing church law and will not prevent bishops from ousting abusive priests.

''I don't know whether I'm reading one charter and everyone outside is reading another ... but the idea that a person who perpetrates in this terribly bad fashion will be back in ministry is some kind of a myth,'' said Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who is the chairman of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse. ''I don't get it at all.''

Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., one of four American bishops who traveled to Rome to negotiate the changes to the US bishops' policy, said that the policy is strengthened by the proposed revisions but that ''It may be that people who are in such pain right now can't see that. It may take some time.''

Lay groups and advocates for victims said they were disturbed by Gregory's remarks and the tone of the meeting.

''He seems to have adopted the tone of some of the Rome bureaucrats, who say discussion is bad, disagreement is bad,'' David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said of Gregory. ''In most institutions some degree of discourse and debate is welcome, if not encouraged.''

Susan Troy, a member of the executive board of Voice of the Faithful and a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, took particular exception to Gregory's assertion - echoed repeatedly by other bishops - that the bishops ''will not step back'' from the commitments they made to victims in the Dallas charter.

''The survivors are telling them that this is a step back, and they're not listening,'' Troy said. ''Are the bishops going to tell the victims how to feel, or are they going to sit down and listen to the victims say how they feel?''

Unlike in Dallas, when the bishops allowed victims and selected lay intellectuals to address them, at this meeting there is no plan for any discussion between bishops and victims or lay leaders. Troy said she was puzzled by a section of Gregory's speech where he exhorted his fellow bishops to accept assistance from the laity, when many bishops have refused to talk with Voice of the Faithful members or allow them to meet on church property.

''He said he needs us and that the bishops need us, but we're here and we don't think we're part of the discussion,'' Troy said.

Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the chairman of the National Review Board appointed by the bishops to monitor compliance with the abuse policy, said he was satisfied with the bishops' plan to report allegations of abuse to public authorities, and said the other proposed changes are acceptable to all members of his board.

''There is no opportunity for a reluctant or recalcitrant bishop to stop the train,'' Keating said. ''We are satisfied. This is a remarkable and very strong document.''

Keating talked yesterday for the first time this year with Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who has been criticized by many, including Keating, for his past failure to remove abusive priests from ministry. Law sought out Keating and shook his hand, and Keating was overheard telling Law what Keating has previously said publicly - that he believes Law can be part of the solution to the church crisis.

Law, who has slowly been re-emerging into the public spotlight after months of lying low in the heat of the scandal, was given a very public assignment by Gregory yesterday. After one bishop questioned why there was nothing on this week's agenda regarding the possibility of a war against Iraq, Gregory asked Law to address the bishops on the moral issues involved with such a possible conflict. Law's remarks could come as soon as today. Law was unavailable for comment after the meeting on what he might say.

This week's meeting, which began yesterday and is scheduled to wrap up on Thursday, is to be dominated by the issue of clergy sex abuse. The bishops will meet behind closed doors today to discuss the controversial proposed changes to their child-protection policy, and then they plan to vote on the changes, which were demanded by the Vatican, tomorrow.

But there is little doubt about the outcome of the vote. Negotiators made it clear that they are not open to changing the proposed revisions, because the Vatican has already stated that it will make the policy binding if the bishops pass it unchanged.

Gregory called the revisions a ''strengthening'' of the Dallas policy and declared ''we will not step back from our compassion for those who have been harmed or from our determination to put into place policies that will protect children.''

In his speech, Gregory also defended the church's clergy, garnering several rounds of applause, especially when he said, ''God bless our priests.'' The image of priests has been severely tarnished by the sex abuse crisis. Even as many of the bishops were checking into their hotel rooms Sunday night, the television drama ''The Practice'' was featuring a storyline about a man who leaves the church after a confrontation with his parish priest over the church's handling of sexual abuse. And today, a new advocacy group, Survivors First, plans to release a computer database they say lists more than 600 priests across the country who have been accused of abuse. There are 45,700 priests in the United States.

''Priests today too often are being unfairly judged by the misdeeds of other priests, men often long departed from ministry or even deceased,'' Gregory said. ''We need to pay more than lip service to the truth that the overwhelming majority of priests are faithful servants of the Lord.''

In addition to revising the Dallas policy, the bishops plan this week to take several other steps in response to the sex abuse crisis.

They will vote on a ''statement of episcopal commitment,'' which is their response to demands by lay people, priests, and even some bishops, that bishops who fail to protect children be held accountable by the church. The bishops have generally responded that only the pope can discipline bishops, but they will consider a statement saying that they will ''assist each other'' in the implementation of the child-protection policy and that they will apply the policy to themselves when there are allegations against bishops.

The bishops also plan to discuss an unusual proposal to hold the first national plenary council in more than a century, a gathering of bishops to discuss issues including how to promote holiness, priestly celibacy, and sexual morality.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/12/2002.
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