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Inside NCR

The National Lay Review Board, formed by the U.S. bishops and charged with studying the priest sex abuse scandal, has had a series of meetings around the country. In most cases the members have been welcomed, they say, by bishops trying to be as cooperative as possible.

It was a different matter in New York, where they got the distinct impression that they were not welcome (see story Page 9).

The members of the board, high-profile and faithful Catholics, have reached the top of their respective disciplines and professions in the real world, where a certain give and take -- call it cooperation, compromise, communication, trust -- is essential. In New York they ran into one of those members of the Catholic hierarchy who seems to move in another world.

Cardinal Edward Egan has shown himself, in legal transcripts taken in his previous diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., and in more recent comments about the sex abuse crisis, disdainful of legal and other processes that dare to call into question his handling of things.

Any bishop has the right to question who might speak and meet in his diocese under church auspices on church property. In this case, though, the people getting the cold shoulder were those selected by the bishops themselves to take on the unenviable task of helping the bishops get clear of the ugly sex abuse crisis. Egan, apparently, would rather they all go away.

The board members, some of them irate, some of them flabbergasted that any bishop would treat them in such a manner, have run smack into the Church Imperious. It is the church overseen by the medieval prince in which lay people, who often have vast experience and superior education, still feel bound to address the cardinal or bishop as “eminence” or “excellency.”

The board has encountered the church of the great divide. In fact, the experience in New York might well provide them with some of the best material they’ll gather on the causes of the relentless scandal. For it is now well beyond being a sex abuse scandal. That’s what it was 15 years ago. Today it is a scandal of abuse of power by a hierarchical caste that has held itself above accountability.

The events in New York have bared a serious vulnerability of the board and the corresponding Office for Child and Youth Protection, another initiative of the bishops, headed by former FBI agent Kathleen L. McChesney. Members of the board and McChesney serve at the whim of the bishops. Yet central to their assignments is to investigate what the bishops have done in the past and what they are doing now to deal with the crisis. It is an arrangement rife with potential for conflict and manipulation.

The answer to such criticism has been that the board, for instance, can call on the power of public opinion should it run into a bishop who refuses to comply with the group’s wishes. Public opinion, however, only works when the target cares what people think. What the committee may have learned in New York is that such tactics run into problems with the Egans of the hierarchy, who don’t seem to care much at all how they and their actions are perceived.

Getting a national holiday named after you is, I suspect, somewhat like being canonized a saint. Each is a sign that the broader community holds one in high regard. The downside, of course, is that once the person is placed on a pedestal, set apart as it were, the rest of us feel a little freer to admire from afar. Once someone is something special, then that life no longer summons in the same way. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, has become a day off for many (this year, Jan. 20). He’s made it. So who has to know what he said or what he stands for? Who has to push to keep the memory alive? He’s already got his day.

Events of recent weeks, however, put us all on notice that the ugly specter of racism and its effects on our culture are far from being eliminated. Sen. Trent Lott’s comment and downfall remind us that it was only within the last 50 years that we were able to summon the national will to take the first steps toward reversing segregation.

Healing the effects of hundreds of years of slavery will be even more difficult, as evidenced by the suits to be considered in March by the Supreme Court against the University of Michigan by white students who contend they were denied admission because of reverse discrimination.

It was one thing to point to a sign, “Whites Only,” and know it had to come down. It is quite another to deal with the effects of slavery in our institutions and workplaces. David Garrow, in the King biography, Bearing the Cross, notes that in the earliest consideration of reparative measures considered during the civil rights movement, King and others wrestled with special consideration for blacks. King himself pushed for a broad approach that took into consideration the economic plight of poor white workers “whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother.”

The working out of such things, of course, gets complicated very quickly. It is essential to keep in mind, too, that the black community is not monolithic in its thinking about the cures to racism.

What is essential is that all of us continue to wrestle, in our own best and honest ways, with what Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry in Detroit, has called the “addiction” of racism in American society.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003