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Spotlight Report

  David O'Brien  

Questions for the bishops - and advice


IN ST. LOUIS last week, Catholic bishops met with their National Review Board, once chaired by former Governor Frank Keating. His resignation earlier in the week, after a public clash with Cardinal Roger Mahon y of Los Angeles, raised serious questions about the bishops' promise to implement reforms arising from the now 20-year-old scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests. At the end of their meeting Thursday, the bishops reaffirmed their commitment and members of the review board said that they were satisfied with the process.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some bishops are resisting, and Keating's parting suggests the need to mobilize public support for the commission's work.

The review board is charged with three tasks:

To oversee implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Soon independent auditors will visit each diocese to assess local compliance.

To investigate the scope of the problem. The board contracted with John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct this study. Some 60 percent of the dioceses responded promptly to requests for information, but the questionnaires seemed dangerously intrusive to some bishops and their attorneys. This occasioned the clash with Keating, but these reservations have now been resolved and we are told the remaining reports will soon be submitted.

To investigate the causes of the crisis. The board has a research plan ready, but no contract has yet been issued.

Now is the time for Catholics back home, anxious to help their church, to step up and ask questions. If public forums for Catholic discussion, like Diocesan Pastoral Councils or Priests Councils are not available, interested Catholics may have to organize their own meetings. Here are a few questions to consider.

When the independent auditors arrive, who will they talk to? Will they meet with the new local Committees established to advise the bishop on initial response to charges and to improve pastoral care, healing, and prevention? Will they meet with local victims and victim advocates, who often have reservations about the new policies? How about the local Diocesan Pastoral Council, or some other forum, where they might hear from moms and dads?

And what about those reports? According to a story in the New York Times, they are supposed to include the number (but not identity) of abusers and victims, the ages and gender of the victims, the treatment and discipline of offenders, and how much the diocese has spent to deal with these problems. Who wrote, reviewed and submitted the report from your diocese? Was the new Pastoral Care Committee involved? Did the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Priests Council, or the Diocesan Finance Committee get a look at the report? Will the report, or a summary, be made public? What steps are being taken by the bishop, the Priests Council, and the canonical courts to assure that justice has been done to victims and their families, and to accused and convicted priests? These are not unreasonable questions.

Here in Worcester these questions are obvious. The website of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests lists 28 priests removed from ministry in Worcester County since the scandal first broke in 1984.

At last report the local Pastoral Care Committee had no access to files on cases before the seven removals that came with the Boston eruption of 2002. Are the network's numbers accurate? Have once neglected or rejected victims been contacted and offered assistance? Is the diocese satisfied that all perpetrators are not presently in situations where they could harm children? And are there older, out of court settlements that left some priests unnamed, some victims unattended? If so, is there not the danger that eventually law suits will force all those protected, secret files into the public, as happened elsewhere?

That is the worst road to truth telling. Here there is still the option chosen in Chicago by Cardinal Bernardin 15 years ago: to appoint a responsible commission, trusted by the community, to review the files, make a summary report, and share hard decisions with the bishop.

Questions like these may seem to perpetuate the pain of the crisis, and they may confirm the judg ment of many bishops that they get too little credit for all they have done. Bishops might well appreciate an old poster of a ragged person, head emerging from a wringer washer, under the heading: ''the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.''

Many Catholics share a natural desire to get this scandal behind us, not least to stop the slow erosion of the church's many ministries to poor and suffering people everywhere. But across the world, from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Central America, there is growing evidence of the intimate link between truth and trust.

Victims of clerical sexual abuse, in almost all cases, insist that they seek first of all recognition and respect, public acknowledgement of the truth of what they have experienced. Truthfulness must precede, then accompany, healing and reconciliation.

Keating's one-time colleagues on the review board are carrying out the assignment, given them by the bishops, to find the truth. They deserve everyone's help.

David O'Brien is director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross.

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 6/28/2003.
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