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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

Key changes in bishop's abuse policy review board


More than two years after the U.S. bishops appointed a lay-run board to oversee implementation of their child-protection plans and investigate the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis, it is transition time. Key members are leaving the panel, which since its inception has tried to balance its need for information and cooperation from bishops with its desire to be independent.

On Oct. 15, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, named five new members to the National Review Board and elevated a current member, Duquesne University Law School dean Nicholas Cafardi, as chairman of the 14-member panel. Among the five departing members is Anne Burke, the Illinois Court of Appeal Justice who stepped in as interim chair after the forced departure of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. Others leaving the board include former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, E.W. Scripps Co. chairman William Burleigh, and Washington attorney Robert Bennett, who is credited with shepherding to completion the “Bennett Report” on the causes and context of the crisis.

What makes the personnel changes significant “is not just the fact that we have five new board members, but that the most visible and seemingly active board members are stepping down,” said victims’ advocate David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Our worry is that it seems to take some time before [board members] become sufficiently skeptical of the bishops. It’s not so much a learning curve, as it is a skepticism curve.”

Gregory, meanwhile, is a lame duck as bishops’ conference president. His three-year term, dominated by the abuse crisis, expires next month.

“We very much had the support of Bishop Gregory, and it’s critical that we have the support of the next president of the bishops’ conference,” said Cafardi.

Gregory received mixed reviews for his handling of the crisis. At the February release of the Bennett Report, for example, he termed the sex abuse crisis “history,” raising the hackles of those who worry that many bishops are too ready to dismiss the sex abuse crisis as a bad memory. Others, including some of Gregory’s brother bishops, fault him for creating the review board in the first place, saying that he panicked in the midst of intense media scrutiny at the bishops’ June 2002 Dallas meeting.

“Some members of the [bishops’ conference] think our job is done -- that our work is no longer needed,” said Cafardi. That, he hastens to add, “is a premature judgment.” He said he would welcome the day when the board was no longer necessary but that is “not now or in the near future.”

The board’s short-term agenda, said Cafardi, is clear, though it won’t necessarily be easy.

“We need to follow up on the recommendations of the Bennett Report, make sure the audits [of diocesan child-protection programs] are institutionalized, and follow up on the further study” the board recommended earlier this year, said the 55-year-old Cafardi.

Additional study of the causes of the crisis was, in fact, the first recommendation of the Bennett Report. It envisioned a “multiyear study of the epidemic of abuse that the John Jay College study describes” that would “identify the interactive causal factors in a systematic, epidemiological … fashion.” Such a study, said the report, “will enable the church to develop additional policies for the protection of children” and provide guidance to the “society at large” on how to prevent child abuse.

At its next meeting, the review board will consider what entity should undertake the study, Cafardi said, though who will pay for such a large undertaking remains a question. It is possible, he said, that “the bishops will fund it” or seek support from a foundation for the effort. Still, he continued, “It’s really not the board’s job to see that the funds are there; that’s the bishops’ job.”

The second element of the board’s agenda -- audits of diocesan child-protection programs -- concerns Clohessy. The audits were conducted for the first time in 2003, but dozens of bishops objected to a second round of reviews, arguing that they had not agreed to an ongoing and costly process. At their meeting last June, however, the bishops voted to go ahead with this year’s audits.

But the “so-called audits,” said Clohessy, can do more harm than good. “If this board does what its predecessor did -- let bishops define these audits in grandiose terms and mischaracterize them -- that will be a very bad sign.” The 2003 audits did not describe the quality of the “safe environment programs” established at the diocesan level, but simply noted whether the administrative infrastructure for such programs existed.

“As these so-called audits came in last year, at the local level bishops would run out and puff their chests out and brag about meeting these extraordinarily minimal standards,” said Clohessy. “It will be interesting to see whether the board tolerates that or whether they inject some healthy skepticism into the process.”

Meanwhile, said Cafardi, the Bennett Report recommendations have been referred to bishops’ conference committees for action, “and it would be good to know what action has been done.” A report on the bishops’ handling of the recommendations will likely be presented at their national meeting next month in Washington.

Establishment of a lay-run review board, said Cafardi, was “a novel idea in our church.” To those who contend that the board usurps hierarchical power he argued, “We’re not talking about matters of faith here -- these are policy questions and on policy questions we would be a stronger church if we paid attention to the advice of the lay faithful.”

The new members of the review board, each appointed to three-year terms, are former Pace University president Patricia O’Donnell Ewers; Dr. Angelo Giardino, vice president for clinical affairs at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia; Ralph Lancaster Jr., an attorney from Portland, Maine; Judge Michael R. Merz of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio; and Joseph Russoniello, dean of the San Francisco Law School.

Neither SNAP nor individual clergy sex abuse victims had input into the board selections, said Clohessy.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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