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Spotlight Report

Remarks, resignations put bishops in spotlight

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/19/2003

ST. LOUIS -- This was supposed to be a quiet meeting.

The Catholic bishops of the United States, after two bruising semiannual meetings dominated by discussion of clergy sexual abuse, set a notably low-key agenda for this year's spring gathering, which begins today. The schedule highlights include votes on two new directories, one for deacons and one for catechists.

The bishops also did everything they could to discourage press coverage. After years of conducting their business mostly in public, they repeatedly announced that this week's meeting would take place almost entirely behind closed doors and would have little to do with the topic that is uppermost on the minds of many Catholics.

But the bishops could hardly have planned a noisier buildup to their gathering.

Yesterday, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix, who is free on bail while awaiting trial on a charge that he fled the scene of an accident in which the car he was driving hit a jaywalker who later died.

O'Brien's arrest came just days after Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles angrily denounced the chairman of the national review board scrutinizing the church's child protection efforts, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, for comparing some bishops to mobsters. Keating resigned Monday.

''The combination of Keating's statement with the metaphor of a bishop leaving a victim by the side of the road was hard to miss,'' Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, said in a telephone interview. ''The bishops clearly did not want to make any national news . . . but all of a sudden the story has coalesced again.''

The number of reporters seeking credentials to cover the bishops' meeting leaped 50 percent, to 150 from 100, as a result of the events of last week, according to David Early, a spokesman for the bishops' conference. Early said that about 850 news media members sought credentials to cover the meeting in Dallas last June, during the height of the crisis, and about 350 sought credentials last November, in Washington.

''The circumstances of the past week have certainly changed a bit of the context for our time,'' Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of Nashville said in an interview in St. Louis. ''I hope we will be able to demonstrate that we are very serious about this problem, and very concerned about protection of the young.''

Among those arriving in St. Louis yesterday was Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the former archbishop of Boston who resigned last December amid intense criticism of his failure to remove abusive priests from ministry. Law, who still votes on Vatican committees as a sitting cardinal but cannot vote at bishops' meetings because he is considered a retired bishop, flew to St. Louis from Boston yesterday, accompanied by his interim replacement, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, as well as the archdiocesan vicar general, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean. On the same flight were three Voice of the Faithful top officials, who exchanged pleasantries with the men who have banned their group from meeting in certain churches and who have refused to accept contributions raised by their group.

''I hope that we have some unity going forward, and a commitment to carrying out what was in the charter [for the protection of young people],'' Lennon said.

But many believe it will be difficult for the bishops to claim moral authority given recent events.

''The last week has been bizarre, with Governor Keating and the bishop in Phoenix . . . and that makes it very difficult for the bishops to be credible to anybody at this point,'' Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, said in a telephone interview. ''We seem to be in another phase of a downward spiral. When Cardinal Law resigned, there was an uptick of hope, but as expectations were raised, they have been disappointed, and there is growing skepticism about the availability and even the willingness of the bishops to significantly reform the practices of the church.''

Perhaps the most significant reflection of the impact of the crisis will take place tomorrow -- a day the bishops have set aside for closed-door ''prayerful reflection'' on the possibility of calling an unusual ''plenary council'' at which the bishops would discuss the state of the church in the United States. Such a gathering, which must be approved by the Vatican, has not been held in this country in more than 100 years.

According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the last plenary council in this country took place in Baltimore in 1884, and led to the publication of the Baltimore Catechism. The conference said laypeople and priests can participate in a plenary council, but do not have a vote, and their numbers must be limited.

The idea of a council was proposed last summer by dozens of bishops who wanted a gathering that would discuss the issues of ''promoting holiness, priestly celibacy, and sound sexual morality'' in the United States. But the effort appears to have lost steam as some have expressed concern that it would be difficult to control the agenda of such a gathering.

While the bishops meet behind closed doors, others will be offering their own analysis of the crisis.

Miramax Films is taking advantage of the events of the week by holding two press screenings here, today and tomorrow, of ''The Magdalene Sisters,'' a movie about alleged cruelty by Irish nuns that won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival but has been denounced by the Vatican.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the nation's largest support group for such victims, has scheduled its first ''national assembly'' at a hotel near the Hyatt where the bishops are staying. While the bishops are scheduled to discuss topics such as ''apply[ing] Catholic social teaching to the challenges affecting agriculture,'' the SNAP agenda features topics such as ''coping with a survivor suicide.''

''A year ago, in Dallas, we met with bishops and cardinals, and each time they made statements such as, `We've now begun a dialogue,' '' Barbara Blaine, the president of SNAP, said in an interview. ''It's been 12 months, and we haven't heard from them since.''

Blaine said her organization sent a letter yesterday to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the bishops' conference, asking him to urge bishops to cooperate with the review board's study of the abuse crisis, and to replace Keating on the board with someone with experience in law enforcement. Keating is a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor.

Voice of the Faithful, the Newton-Mass.-based lay organization, and Call to Action, a Chicago-based reform group, have sent their top lay leaders to St. Louis to offer a critique of the bishops' conduct, while Survivors First Inc., a Boston victim advocacy organization, yesterday held a news conference at a fountain outside the bishops' hotel to unveil a new website aimed at tracking the conduct of bishops and to release a list of what the organization says are 1,613 allegedly abusive priests.

''We have not seen the bishops' actions match their words,'' Paul Baier of Wellesley, founder of Survivors First, told reporters. ''The national review board has been discredited, reform-oriented priests have been marginalized, and in diocese after diocese the poor and needy are suffering.''

The bishops will have several discussions related to the crisis. Today, in a closed-door session, they plan to meet with members of the review board to discuss concerns bishops have raised about a questionnaire the board is asking the bishops to fill out to describe the scope of abuse by priests. The bishops had asked the board to study the scope and causes of sexual abuse of minors by priests, but some bishops are balking at complying with the study.

The only open discussion of the crisis is scheduled for Saturday, when the bishops have planned to hear, in open session, ''a brief report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse on the implementation of the Charter [for the Protection of Children and Youth].''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/19/2003.
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