Are Bishops Prepared to Address Problems?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convenes Thursday with reluctance, and even open resistance surrounding reforms adopted last year — and once again in the context of protests around the country .

In the wake of a notorious sex abuse scandal plaguing the Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a groundbreaking new charter last year that promised to lift the veil of secrecy that was protecting hundreds of abusive priests.

One year later, the Church has made progress: an "audit" identifies non-compliant dioceses, and hundreds of accused priests have been suspended.

But the Church remains roiled by controversy, and fractured by accusations that some bishops have resisted fully implementing the new no-tolerance policy on sex abuse.

Before his resignation today, Phoenix, Ariz., Bishop Thomas O'Brien fought for months to avoid releasing Church documents to prosecutors investigating abuse allegations. Relenting two weeks ago, O'Brien signed an agreement admitting he kept known pedophile priests in positions with access to children — in exchange, he was granted immunity from prosecution.

Pope John Paul II accepted O'Brien's resignation a day after he was charged in a weekend hit-and-run accident unrelated to the sex abuse allegations.

Also this week, the National Review Board, an independent oversight panel of Catholic laity charged with monitoring the Church reforms, lost its leader. Board head Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, resigned after a firestorm of criticism erupted over remarks he made comparing certain bishops' handling of the abuse scandal to the way the Mafia handles its legal problems. "To act like La Cosa Nostra," he told the Los Angeles Times last week, to "hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy."

Another member of the Review Board, attorney Robert Bennett, accused some U.S. bishops of acting "like risk assessment officers of insurance companies," more concerned with the cost of public disclosure than with shepherding the faithful through a difficult time in the history of the Church.

Keating in fact named Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony as one such bishop, "listening too much to his lawyer, and not enough to his heart." Mahony had refused to provide the National Review Board with data on the number of priests accused of molesting children, and on the number of victims.

Dallas Reform Disregarded?

Many say the one-strike policy adopted in Dallas means there can no longer be the type of systematic and secret protection of pedophile priests that prevailed in the past — one credible allegation of abuse is enough to warrant a priest's suspension. But reluctance, and even open resistance, still surround the reforms.

Under Cardinal Francis George, the Chicago Archdiocese refused to disclose the identity of four suspended priests. In New York, Cardinal Edward Egan vowed to never disclose the names or fates of accused pedophile priests, though he has since conceded.

In Baltimore, Cardinal William Keeler had the names of 56 accused priests published in the Church newspaper and on its Web site, urging victims to come forward. Still, the names were removed from the Web site after only six weeks.

All but the most ardent critics of the Church say the importance of the Dallas conference was that for the first time, Church leaders were forced to publicly admit — if not necessarily understand — that protecting priests who abuse children was wrong.

"The light snapped on" at last year's Dallas conference, Georgetown theologian Chester Gillis recalls. The bishops said, "'We have to change, we have no choice.' Now, once they put a policy in place, did some kick and scream, and still delay? I think some did. I think it's very hard to change habits."

But in demonstrations from Chicago to Los Angeles, an angry Catholic laity wants to know why it is taking so long to implement last year's reforms. "How many children of God's lives do they have to ruin before they start to do something?" a California protester asked.

Laity Leads the Way

In Orange County, Calif., Joelle Casteix also quit a local diocese board advising the Church on sex abuse issues. "The meetings degenerated into these whining sessions about protecting the privacy of these priests," Casteix, who herself was molested by a Catholic high school teacher, recounts. "I was horrified. The only concern was that documents stay out of the hands of the media and prosecutors."

But fellow board member Barbara Phillips feels the local panel is "doing very well. We have established our protocol for response to victims, we have very dedicated volunteers," she explains. "We have a staff from the diocese that provide us assistance as required."

Such layperson panels, from the National Review Board on down, may become more influential. "What we're seeing is a lot of victims feeling betrayed, feeling disillusioned, feeling like if there is going to be change, it's not going to be coming from the bishops," says David Clohessy of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "So, we've got to do it ourselves. We've got to get the lawmakers and the prosecutors and the legislators and the police to do more."

In the meantime, the National Review Board is compiling data for a report that will attempt to outline and explain how the Church ended up in crisis, and how it can get out. "Generally, I am satisfied the mechanisms are in place, and are in some instances being put into place, that we will largely eliminate this as a problem in the future," attorney Bennett says. "This board is going to be issuing a public report, and you can be sure that if there's some bishop or diocese that's not complying, the world is going to know about it."