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May 22, 2004
Column #1,186

                           Catholic Bishops Acquiesce To Lay Leaders

     Catholic bishops have rarely, if ever, been forced to yield to other leaders, an experience common to us all, whether we're a employee with a boss, or a governor facing voters, or a corporate president and his board of directors.

     On Monday, however, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reluctantly yielded to the National Review Board that the bishops created in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal. 

     Only a week earlier, the bishops were accused by NRB's Chair, Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Court of Appeals, of being "manipulated" by the bishops as a public relations cover.

     In March, the NRB of distinguished Catholic lay leaders, released the results of audits conducted in every diocese, revealing that 4,392 priests had sexually abused 10,667 children. The NRB criticized bishops who "all too often treated victims of clerical sexual abuse as adversaries and threats to the well-being of the Church, not as injured parishioners in need of healing." But NRB praised the bishops for allowing an annual audit on the issue.

     However, on Feb. 2, New York Cardinal Egan wrote to the Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the Catholic bishops, that New York bishops did not want another audit until it has been agreed to by all of the bishops at a November meeting. Dozens of bishops did the same.

     Bishop Gregory did not tell the NRB about those requests before the Feb. 27 meeting at which the results of the first audit were given to the press. But in March he told the NRB that the second round of audits would be delayed until approved by bishops in November.

     Justice Burke responded with a livid letter to Gregory: "It is hard to reach any other conclusion than that the failure to tell the NRB of these matters in a timely fashion was to make sure that they did not come up in any discussions with the national media on Feb. 27. In short , we were manipulated...We are very disheartened by this apparent decision to go back to `business as usual.' To place everything on hold for eight months will undoubtedly have adverse repercussions.

     "Those who said that the bishops were never serious about breaking free from the sins, crimes and bad judgments of the past will be vindicated. A decision to backslide...will reopen the wounds of deception, manipulation and control - all the false ideals that produced this scandal."

     Her letter, which was edited and approved by the entire Review Board, said people of faith were willing to give bishops the benefit of doubt because they appeared to have turned a corner. "It would be shameful if we were now to discover that we were wrong about the commitment of our bishops."

     Her letter and others from Cardinal Egan and others who wanted to put on the brakes, were published by the National Catholic Reporter. 

     That "jolted" the Catholic bishops, Justice Burke told me. Bishop Gregory and his top committee met in a teleconference on Monday with Justice Burke and several other NRB members. NRB told the bishops their delay "would render us immobile."

     Faced with a revolt of such Catholics as Bob Bennett, President Clinton's attorney in the Lewinsky affair and Norman Panetta, Clinton's Chief of Staff, the bishops backed down.

      They pledged to discuss the matter in June rather than waiting till November, which allows the 2004 audits to take place this summer, as scheduled.

     The entire incident reminded me of the bishop's clash with the first NRB Chairman, Frank Keating, former Governor of Oklahoma. When all of California's bishops, led by Cardinal Mahoney, refused to acquiesce to the audits, Gov. Keating said they were acting like the Mafia.

     Mahoney forced Keating to resign. This year, however, Cardinal Mahoney was quite willing to have the auditors, former FBI agents, come and take a look his handling of the scandal. Why? He wants to look cooperative as he handles 500 civil suits and a Grand Jury.

     These princes of the Church are discovering what the rest of us have known all along, that everyone's power is limited and we are all subject to authority.

     It might teach them some humility. However, don't expect any to resign, which many should do, since they moved pedophile priests from one parish to another.

     However, Catholics can rejoice that the big boys have egg on their face.

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