WASHINGTON — As the highest-ranking woman in the FBI — running seven of the agency’s largest divisions — Kathleen McChesney had a lot of authority and control.

But that was not the case in the U.S. Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, she said. She stepped down as executive director of the office Feb. 25 at the end of her two-year contract.

“In this position, you’re dealing with an organization that’s not structured on a business model, so when trying to implement programs and procedures, it’s a bit more difficult than it was at the FBI,” McChesney said on her last day on the job.

She expressed few other complaints about her tenure with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, but said the job changed her whole perspective of the hierarchy. She explained that before taking the job, she believed the USCCB was an authoritative, hierarchical structure like the FBI.

“I think a lot of Catholics believe, as I did, that there’s an authoritative structure here in the U.S., and there’s not,” McChesney said. “The USCCB is like a trade association. In the end, they do not report to one another. It is Rome to whom they report.”

Still, McChesney said she enjoyed her short stint as the first director of the Child and Youth Protection office. Bishops established the office in 2002 at a now-famous summit in Dallas, where they also adopted a charter and proposed norms to address the sexual abuse crisis. They also appointed a National Review Board to oversee McChesney’s office.

“I’ve never measured the work here in terms of success,” McChesney said. “But we had progress implementing ways to prevent abuse and to provide information to Catholics about what has happened and what the Church is doing about it. From that standpoint, we have been somewhat successful. But real success will be when you can empirically show that incidence of abuse has diminished as far as possible.”

McChesney said she takes satisfaction in the fact nearly all U.S. bishops cooperated with her office and the National Review Board. For example, 191 of 195 dioceses cooperated in an audit for sexual abuse complaints in 2003, and all but one diocese cooperated in 2004, she said.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, of Lincoln, Neb., was the only bishop who declined to cooperate with her office, McChesney noted. Bishop Bruskewitz declined to speak to the Register about his decision to not participate in the audits and the recommended background checks on employees and volunteers who have regular contact with children.

But in a statement last year, he said, “The reporting of the study does not promise to place into context the number of priests who did not commit sexual abuse of minors.”

Father Paul Witt, a pastor in the Diocese of Lincoln, in an interview last year with the Associated Press, expressed trust in Bishop Bruskewitz to protect children.

Bill Burleigh, a former member of the National Review Board, said, “Bishop Bruskewitz believes he answers only to the Pope, and he resents what he considers the usurpation of authority by the USCCB, and he certainly doesn’t like the conference as an intermediating authority.

“There’s some justification in wondering whether national conferences clip a bishop’s authority, but it’s not good politics in the midst of this scandal, because the message gets misunderstood,” said Burleigh, who added that McChesney did an outstanding job as director.

Defending the Bishops

Though McChesney mentioned Bishop Bruskewitz as the only American bishop who did not cooperate with her office, one Church critic says McChesney downplays what that critic calls “widespread” obfuscation on the part of bishops.

“She had a lot more potential than what she was able to exercise,” said Barbara Blaine, executive director of the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests. “The bishops gave her such a limited range to operate in. She spent a lot of energy ensuring that codes of conduct were established, and we feel she would have been better off to prod bishops for true reform — pressing them to go to every Catholic school and every church to encourage everyone with any information to come forward with any and all information about abusers.”

McChesney says she’s well aware that Snap members remain critical of bishops, the Office of Child Protection and the National Review Board.

“I take exception to what they say, because it’s not true,” McChesney said. “Many bishops have done exactly what Snap says the bishops refuse to do. They have spoken from the pulpit and asked people to come forward. They have written it in their diocesan newspapers and in letters to parishioners. They have done these things, and taken other measures, to try to find out about any abuse that’s taking place or has taken place in the past.”

Though Blaine believes McChesney’s law enforcement background was under-utilized in the position, she complimented McChesney for her personal dealings with sex abuse victims and their families.

“She is extremely compassionate,” Blaine said. “She gets it. She understands the lifelong devastating impact that sex abuse has on children.”

“Assisting the victims and their family members in finding the right resources for help was very rewarding,” McChesney said. “We received some incredible letters and e-mails and phone calls from victims and their families who found tremendous relief in the way our office acted, and that was very reassuring.”

McChesney grew up Catholic in Seattle, and attended two Catholic universities: Seattle University and Gonzaga. She says the sexual abuse crisis and her work for the USCCB never challenged her lifelong faith.

“I knew going into this that the Church is a human entity, because it serves humanity,” McChesney said. “It doesn’t change your faith to learn that some members of a human organization hurt other members of it. That’s to be expected, and I just considered it a privilege to be helping out with this particularly unique mission in the Church to get to the root of sexual abuse of children and eradicate it.”

Jane Chiles, a member of the National Review Board and a member of the search committee to find a replacement for McChesney, said the entire board wanted her to stay. Chiles said McChesney had every opportunity to renew her two-year contract when it expired.

“Kathleen brought so many skills to this job that were necessary to establish the office and the position of founding executive director,” Chiles said. “We only hope we can find someone who will be able to carry on the excellent start Kathleen gave us.”

Chiles said the search committee submitted its recommendation for a replacement in late February to Bishop William Skylstad, president of the bishops’ conference. She would not disclose details about the recommended applicant, but said an announcement might come at the end of March or in early April.

Burleigh said when the board hired McChesney, it interviewed other potential applicants who were lawyers, social scientists, social workers, parents, government employees and academicians.

“It happened that at the time Kathleen had just the background that was needed,” Burleigh said. “There were bishops who resented the fact that we chose someone with a background in law enforcement, but there had been terrible felonies committed and that was the appropriate background for the task.”

McChesney wouldn’t say what she is doing next and that she would leave it to her next employer to announce.

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.