Audit Clash a Question of Authority

WASHINGTON — A recent clash over abuse audits raises the question of the authority of individual bishops on the one hand and bishops’ conferences on the other.

The National Review Board is made up of lay people appointed by the U.S. bishops conference. The board is responsible for overseeing annual audits of U.S. dioceses and eparchies, assessing their compliance with the provisions of the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., and the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., both declined to participate in last year’s audits.

In her foreword to the 2005 report on the result of the audits, which was released in late March, Patricia O’Donnell Ewers, the National Review Board chairwoman, called for “strong fraternal correction” of Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Bustros over their refusal to participate.

Said Ewers, “Though their governance authority is fully understood by the board, nonetheless, these refusals go against all of the efforts of the Church to be open and transparent in addressing child protection and reaching out to victims to help with their healing.”

Bishop Bruskewitz released a sharply worded response March 31.

“The Diocese of Lincoln has nothing to be corrected for, since the Diocese of Lincoln is and has always been in full compliance with all laws of the Catholic Church and with all civil laws,” Bishop Bruskewitz said in a statement. “Furthermore, Ewers and her Board have no authority in the Catholic Church, and the Diocese of Lincoln does not recognize them as having any significance.”

‘Moral Errors’

Bishop Bruskewitz said that it is “well known” that some National Review Board members advocate “moral errors” like abortion and human cloning. And Ewers’ remarks in the 2005 report, he said, “seem to confirm the suspicion that the members of her board are unfamiliar with Catholic teachings, Catholic ecclesiology, and even the basic rudiments of the Catholic Catechism.”

Concluded Bishop Bruskewitz, “The Diocese of Lincoln does not see any reason for the existence of Ewers and her organization.”

Replying to questions from the Register via e-mail, Bishop Bruskewitz stopped short of calling for the board’s outright abolition. He said that while he sees no use for the board, it may be useful for some bishops for reasons he was not aware of.

Asked which board members had advocated moral positions contrary to Church teachings, Bishop Bruskewitz named current board member Dr. Paul McHugh and former board member Leon Panetta.

Panetta, who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, supported abortion laws while serving as a U.S. congressman. Clinton twice vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortion while president.

McHugh is a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who also serves on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. He has expressed support for cloning human embryos to extract stem cells, but has defended his position, saying it is more complicated than simply pro-cloning.

This is not the first time Bishop Bruskewitz has been critical of the National Review Board. In a May 2004 interview with Catholic World Report, he said that the lay board — which is appointed by the bishops’ conference president — is “problematic” in terms of ecclesiology and has no authority over bishops.

In support of his position, Bishop Bruskewitz cited Pope John Paul II’s 1998 apostolic letter on bishops’ conferences, Apostolus Suos. It states, “Bishops, whether individually or united in conference, cannot autonomously limit their own sacred power in favor of the Episcopal Conference, and even less can they do so in favor of one of its parts, whether the permanent council or a commission or the president” (No. 20).

Bishop Bruskewitz also argued that the sexual abuse charter is not binding on individual dioceses, unlike the provisions of the Vatican’s “Essential Norms” for the handling of sexual abuse cases in the United States. Those norms, which do not refer to the National Review Board or to diocesan abuse audits, were promulgated by the Congregation of the Clergy in December 2002 following consultations with the U.S. bishops.

The National Review Board’s Ewers does not dispute that Bishop Bruskewitz has the authority to refuse to participate in the sexual abuse audits. At the same time, she’s not apologetic about calling for his “fraternal correction” by his brother bishops.

Said Ewers, “He looks at it as a question of authority, I look at it as a question of responsibility.”

The U.S. bishops have committed themselves to the implementation of the charter and to annual audits, Ewers said, and “the responsibility of the National Review Board is to oversee that audit.”

When an individual bishop such as Bishop Bruskewitz refuses to participate, Ewers said that “fraternal correction seems the appropriate means” to address the situation since the bishops’ conference lacks authority to compel cooperation.

Regarding Bishop Bruskewitz’s allegation that some members of the National Review Board dissent from Church teachings on some moral issues, Ewers said, “I am not aware of the specifics of what he’s referring to.”

Asked why she was focusing on Bishop Bruskewitz, whose diocese has not been embroiled in the abuse scandals, rather than advocating fraternal correction in cases where bishops are known to have protected abusive priests, Ewers said that without an audit there was no “certitude” that the Diocese of Lincoln wasn’t more vulnerable to the problem than Bishop Bruskewitz believes.

Ewers said that if cases of concrete mishandling of abuse allegations by bishops came to the attention of the board through the auditing process, “then it would be appropriate for us to call for fraternal correction” in those cases as well.

The bishops’ conference has declined to distance itself from the comment of the chairman of the National Review Board. Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the U.S. bishops’ conference, said that Bishop William Skylstad, the president of the bishops’ conference, and other conference officials would not comment on the matter.

This is not the first time a bishop has questioned whether it is appropriate for the National Review Board to advocate fraternal correction. In an April 2004 letter to Anne Burke, Ewers’ predecessor as chairman of the National Review Board, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and his then-Auxiliary Bishop Jose Gomez said, “The matter of ‘fraternal correction’ among bishops has canonical implications that go well beyond the NRB’s competence.”

The Denver bishops also questioned the wisdom of conducting annual audits. “We do think it would make more sense on a triennial or quadrennial basis,” they wrote.

Said Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Gomez, “In any case, it is not the NRB’s duty to interpret the Charter. The NRB is an important advisory body at the service of the bishops. It does not and cannot have supervisory authority.”

Catholic commentator Russell Shaw, who served as spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference from 1969-1987, said that while it’s “certainly arguable” that Bishop Bruskewitz should have cooperated with the annual audit, “I don’t think it was appropriate for the Review Board to chastise him on its own authority in public.”

Said Shaw, “There are a number of bishops … who have either done, or have been accused of having done, far worse things than Bishop Bruskewitz is alleged to have done by the Review Board. And I don’t notice the Review Board having taken any of those bishops to task.”

Shaw said that at the bishops’ conference meeting in June 2002 in Dallas, where the review board was created, many bishops were concerned about the board and about other elements of the abuse charter. But in the climate of harsh media criticism directed against bishops over the mishandling of U.S. cases of priestly sexual abuse, such bishops have been wary of expressing their concerns publicly.

Said Shaw, “A not inconsiderable number of bishops more or less feel the same way as Bishop Bruskewitz about the National Review Board, and about a lot of other aspects of the national policy on sex abuse.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.