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Watchdogs needed to restore faith in bishops


In the wake of their Dallas meeting where the U.S. bishops adopted a charter for stripping sexually abusive priests of their collars, they find themselves under fire from a variety of quarters. Not that they don’t deserve it.

Victims say they didn’t go far enough, that they should have ordered the defrocking of all sex-offending clergy. Some parishioners, especially those losing pastors, say the bishops went too far, that they should have been more forgiving. Both priests and laity demand to know why the stringent sanctions against priests are not to be applied to bishops. For its part, Rome has yet to speak officially, but has let it be known that officials there have never warmed to the entire process.

Only in one area does there seem to be nearly unanimous support. Catholics, wanting to hold their bishops accountable and not trusting they can do it themselves, support the formation of local and national lay oversight review boards.

But can lay boards responsible to and funded by the bishops really act as truly independent monitors? Can such boards do their work free from external pressure, especially from the very men who have appointed them? And what force will any of their statements or recommendations have?

These are some of the questions reasonable people are asking. If the lay oversight committees speak freely, provide the bishops with insights that only perceptive outsiders can offer, if their findings and recommendations force significant change, then they will have provided the church an enormous service. If this happens, we might one day look back at the work of the national review board, headed by Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, as a transitional moment, a step toward establishing a proper balance of lay influence in the church.

It is the sad truth that it took relentless pressure by the media, the threat of scores of new lawsuits, eroding finances, and an outraged laity to force the foot-dragging bishops, after nearly two decades of denial and cover-up, to take action.

In the end, the bishops had no choice but to seek out credible lay leaders to act as watchdogs if they hoped to reestablish a bit of their badly tarnished credibility.

That said, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., revealed considerable fortitude June 14 in the initial naming of members to the national review board. In addition to Keating, Gregory named Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett, and Illinois Appellate Justice Anne M. Burke, both solid professionals with reputations for independent judgment. Later, Michael J. Bland, a Chicago-area psychologist and sex abuse victim, was invited to join the group.

Keating said the new national board would be made up of “prominent Catholics” who will seek “corrective action” for any clergyman found to be abusive or negligent “from the most junior priest to the most powerful bishop.”

“We have to participate in the restoration of faith to the faithful,” he said. “And you can’t do that by suggesting there is some person in this mix who is above corrective action.” Several bishops had already resigned, Keating noted, adding he anticipated there would be more in the weeks to come.

Keating likened the church’s current crisis to the period of moral erosion that preceded the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. “The church needs a real thorough scrubbing,” he said. “You will not see faint-heartedness in this process.”

Officially, the national lay review board has been established to “monitor and assist” the newly created Office of Child and Youth Protection established by the charter the bishops passed in Dallas. The board will oversee the implementation of the charter in the dioceses, will issue recommendations to Gregory, and will carry out two studies. The first is to be “a comprehensive study of the causes and context of the current crisis” and the second “a descriptive study on the nature and scope of the problem.”

So far, the board has met only once, in Oklahoma City. During that meeting the lay group came up with a dozen or more names of Catholic laity and forwarded those on to Gregory for his final approval.

In a telephone interview, Bennett, who has served as counsel to President Clinton, expressed confidence that the board will be made up of reliable Catholics who will think and speak freely. He also said he believes that the U.S. bishops will take the work of the board seriously. “I don’t think the bishops created this review board to ignore its recommendations and advice,” he said. “It will speak with a strong voice and will speak with a lot of weight behind it.”

However painful it might be to them, the bishops have reminded themselves and the rest of us of a valuable lesson: No one is perfect; we are all quite cable of messing things up -- sometimes pretty badly.

So we all need watchdogs. We all need to encourage each other as we go forward.

It is an especially painful time for the bishops, a humbling moment. Yet out of this “death” experience there is the hope -- indeed, the belief -- that our church is being born anew. As the bishops experience their painful lessons, so too they are likely to learn the advantages of lay collegiality, of accountability, of working within a more inclusive and mutually supportive environment. If this happens, we will all emerge out of this awful experience the better for it.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002