Up Next: Seminaries and Root Causes

ST. LOUIS — A year ago, the U.S. bishops met in Dallas in the heat of a media storm about their handling of sexual abuse of minors by priests. The question then was: What will you do? This year, in St. Louis, another — lower-voltage — media storm asked the question: Was it enough?

The Register asked bishops and critics in St. Louis about three issues:

a coming audit of bishops' scandal response,

Vatican-ordered seminary investigations, and

a proposed plenary council on root causes.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George defended the bishops' record at one press conference.

“It not a question of credibility, it's a question of what has happened,” he said. “And when you hear someone say, ‘Well, the bishops have done nothing,” when in fact, how many hundreds of priests have been removed? How many files have been gone over for how many years in the past? How many victims have been listened to? To come along and say the bishops aren't doing anything — it's an outrageous statement. It's totally unjust.”

The abuse crisis defined last year's meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas; this year it registered only a single-line item on an agenda that included a new national directory for catechesis, a directory on the permanent diaconate and changes to the group that translates the liturgy into English.

However, two events put the abuse issue in the spotlight. First, Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, resigned his post as chairman of the national review board June 16. Then, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien resigned in connection with a hit-and-run accident two weeks after making a deal to avoid penalties for reassigning abusive priests.

Auditing the Bishops

The bishops hope an audit of their performance from their Office for Child and Youth Protection will show they are facing sex-abuse problems better than secular institutions are.

The audit to measure compliance with the abuse policy began in some dioceses in late June and will continue through the next few months, with a final report to be prepared and made public by the chairwoman of the Office for Child and Youth Protection, former highranking FBI official Kathleen McChesney.

“I'm feeling very good and feeling much more compliance than I felt perhaps six months ago,” said national review board member Robert Bennett. “And if we don't get the compliance, this board will identify the bishops [with]in our board who do not comply.”

A second study — to examine the scope and causes behind the crisis — will consist of two parts, Bennett said. The first part will be based on interviews with “lots of people,” he said, and will be released by January.

The study will address homosexuality in the priesthood as a factor in the abuse crisis, he said.

“We will deal with all these issues,” Bennett said. “We may not be able to resolve them, but we will discuss them as best we can.” The second part of the study will be more statistical in nature and will be released later, he said.

That survey was discussed by the bishops in a three-hour executive session, which included a presentation by survey designers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

The survey will be descriptive rather than investigative, and so there will be no names in the report, McChesney said. It will include the total numbers of victims, offenders and instances of abuse, categories of abuse and total amount of money expended in settlements, therapies for victims and offenders, and attorney fees, she said. Those numbers will be set in a context of abuse cases in society at large, she said.

During the executive session, only a minority of bishops expressed reservations about how the survey would be done, Bennett said.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, who had initially backed off from conducting the survey in the Los Angeles Archdiocese because of concerns that some identifying information could violate California privacy laws, will now participate with agreed-upon changes, said national review board member Paul McHugh.

“Nothing was changed in the substance of the survey,” McHugh said.

In fact, Cardinal Mahony said, the survey designers liked the California bishops' suggestions for privacy protection so much they will re-enter the same “secret process code” for the other dioceses so the information will always remain confidential.


Seminaries have been widely regarded as the breeding grounds for the Church's abuse problems. The Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of seminaries in April 2002. The bishops mentioned it in last June's national policy. But the visitations haven't even been planned yet. What happened?

“There has been progress in that area,” said Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the bishops' conference president. “Because it is an apostolic visitation, that initiative has to come from the Holy See. We have been in dialogue with the Holy See, proposing names of bishops who would be available to assist with that visitation, and we anticipate the outline within the next year.”

Cardinal George of Chicago acknowledged that he had not thought about the visitation in months.

“We started the conversation, but we haven't gotten a response back as to what they plan to do,” he said. “Maybe it's because to a great extent the Holy See has been much more interested in trying to move the trials along more quickly — the canonical trials for men accused of [abuse] but who deny it.”

Plenary Council

A proposed plenary council would look at the sex-abuse crisis and its doctrinal causes in more detail. The idea was raised informally last summer by eight bishops who were quickly joined by others. They formed a formal study committee, chaired by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, last year.

If the idea reaches fruition, it would be the first plenary council of U.S. bishops since 1884.

At the November bishops' meeting, the study committee drew up a list of 11 concerns that could be addressed at a plenary council, Archbishop Buechlein said. Based on responses of 226 bishops, the three most pressing of those concerns are the need for catechesis, the role of laity and the contemporary cultural milieu, and the identity and spirituality of priests and bishops. Those three topics formed the theme of the bishops' day of recollection, held in private June 20 at the St. Louis conference.

While there is momentum for a plenary council, some bishops have proposed regional synods as a less costly, more immediate way to address concerns. Archbishop Buechlein said he expects a clearer direction to emerge in June 2004 at the bishops' extraordinary assembly — a spiritual and educational conference that replaces the usual vote-taking spring meeting every three or four years.

Bishops Face Victims

In press conferences and interviews, bishops insisted they have responded well to their policy to protect young people from clergy abuse. But victim/survivors' groups say bishops are still retaining abuser priests and giving poor treatment to victims.

“In Dallas we thought, based on what we were told, that we could expect to see in the bishops a change of attitude, a change of heart, a change of approach,” said Mark Serrano, a member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We thought we would see a greater involvement on the part of the laity and greater accountability on the part of bishops. In case after case across the country, we don't see that.”

He did not specify which bishops are not following through on the charter.

Serrano said he is disappointed the bishops have not met with his group since last year. In a press conference, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis said he would be open to dialogue with victims' groups as long as they are out of the media spotlight.

“It's better on a local level in an environment of healing, an environment of conversation,” the archbishop, who is chairman of the bishops' conference's Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. He said his committee has met with individual victim/survivors whenever asked.

“The bishops have spent a great deal of time on this,” Cardinal George said. “We have a common policy and we have taken out every abuser against which there has been a credible accusation made up to this point. That is a remarkable record in one year.”

Bishops are doing a better — if not perfect — job of reaching out to victims/survivors, Archbishop Flynn said. “A year ago we met in the midst of perhaps the worst crisis in the history of the Church in our country. Since that historic meeting … a monumental effort has been made to fulfill the promises of that [child-protection] charter,” he said. “We do not take too much comfort in that. There is still a long road ahead of us.”

Some bishops reacted with frustration to accusations that they have failed the charter.

Worcester, Mass., Bishop Daniel Reilly said he has released files to law enforcement, met with individual victims — “more victims than anybody here” — and cooperated with his local review board, but that is “never enough” in the eyes of some victims' groups.

“I just wish we would be given a fair shot in the media about how well the Church is doing in responding to this,” he said. “I think there's a great deal of misuse of that whole word of ‘cover-up.” I think there's a lot of slander going on.”

Ellen Rossini filed this story from St. Louis.