National Review Board Getting Less Activist, to Dismay of Some

CHICAGO — The days of pro-abortion activism by members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People are over.

That's the message the bishops’ conference delivered to new appointees to the board.

Past board members Leon Panetta, Robert Bennett and Pamela Hayes came under criticism from Catholics for contributing funds to politicians who support abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research. All three contributed to campaigns of Sen. John Kerry, last year's failed Democratic presidential candidate with a long pro-abortion voting record.

Hayes, in an interview with the Register last October, defended a life of abortion rights activism that pro-life advocates said was counter to the protection of children and young people.

Three of four new appointees to the board met June 14-16 in Chicago in advance of the annual meeting of the bishops’ conference, where the issue was addressed by past appointees still serving on the board.

“There was discussion at our meeting that said those issues [abortion and embryonic stem-cell research] had been touched on in the past, and it was by way of reminding board members, including newcomers like myself, that this was not part of our responsibility and we were not even going to try to address any of that,” said Dr. Joseph Rhode, a physician from Midland, Texas, who's among the new appointees.

Rhode declined to reveal further details about the discussion. But he told the Register he's a lifelong, pro-life Catholic who has never embraced philosophical stands in opposition to Church doctrine. He and his wife, Dr. Caroline Creighton Rhode, also a physician, have seven children.

Others appointed to the board include:

“ William McGarry, the president of Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass. McGarry told the Register he's a lifelong, devout Catholic who attended Catholic schools in New Jersey through high school. McGarry said during six years as president of Anna Maria College he has worked with faculty, students and staff to make the college more Catholic.

“We, like every other university or college in America, are affected by society, so it's always a struggle, and we work very hard at it,” McGarry said. “I think we're working our way in the direction to live out our Catholic mission, and I hope someday to say we're completely there.”

McGarry said to the best of his knowledge he holds no views that are in conflict with Church doctrine on life issues or anything else.

“The process of this appointment included an extensive vetting and background review that explored some of those topics,” McGarry said. “If I had issues with the Church on any of them, I don't think you would be talking to me today.”

“ Thomas DeStefano, the former interim president of Catholic Charities USA and the first lay executive director of Brooklyn Catholic Charities in New York. DeStefano is the father of two. The Register was unable to reach him for comment.

“ Milann Siegfried, a retired registered nurse and philanthropist. Siegfried and her husband, Ray, have six children. She could not be reached by the Register.

Board member Patricia O'Donnell Ewers, an educational consultant and past president of Pace University in New York, was appointed as chairwoman to replace outgoing chairman Nicholas Cafardi. Members are appointed to three-year terms.

Others leaving the board include Alice Bourke Hayes and Ray Siegfried.

Pamela Hayes resigned in November — after defending her pro-abortion activism to the Register — at the request of Bishop Wilton Gregory, former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Ewers told the Register after her appointment to the board in October that she would not publicly reveal her stance on abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning and homosexual “marriage.” She said she had promised conference officials, during an interview for the appointment, that she would not take public stands on Church issues that don't pertain directly to the work of the review board.

Study Expected

The two most recent rounds of board appointments have raised concern among the leaders of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests. David Clohessy, the organization's national director, said it's apparent the bishops are trying to appoint less controversial board members who are more obedient to Church doctrine.

Clohessy said he has no objection having members who abide by Church teachings, but he said rebellious members of the past seemed more interested in policing Church hierarchy in order to end sexual abuse.

“We think the key qualification has to be a willingness to speak out against Church leaders whenever necessary to protect children,” Clohessy said. “Certainly, it's only fair and logical to expect that the bishops would favor appointees who are in line with Church teachings. But from our point of view, theology and ideology are nearly irrelevant regarding the charter of the national review board.”

Bishop William Skylstad, president of the bishops’ conference, said in a statement about the new appointments that the review board has “played a tremendously important role in helping the Church confront and deal effectively with the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors in the Church.”

Ewers said the board's progress has slowed in the past nine months, mainly because she and four other members appointed in October came just before a change in administration in the office of Child and Youth Protection — which is overseen by the review board. The first director of the office, Kathleen McChesney, ended her two-year contract Feb. 25 and was replaced by Teresa Kettelkamp.

“We're hoping we have reached a time now that we can go about our work 100%,” Ewers said.

The board planned to announce in June who will receive the contract for the review board's study into the causes and contexts of the sexual abuse crisis, a project that's expected to take several years to complete.

Ewers declined to express her beliefs about the causes of abuse. Rhode said the study is likely to determine that the causes of sexual abuse are myriad and complex, but he has some theories of his own.

“Formative issues, like what type of household an abuser was brought up in, are likely to play into it,” he said. “An abusive environment, for example, may have an impact on a child's sexual identity. Some of the problem has to do with societal changes that occurred in the '50s, '60s and '70s — when most of this abuse occurred.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.