Friday, June 13, 2003

Bishops will confer in private

At national conclave, serious topics to be tackled without outsiders

By Richard N. Ostling
The Associated Press

America's Roman Catholic bishops will meet next week, and a glance at the agenda shows the prelates are in no mood to talk publicly about the problem still tormenting the church - molesters in the priesthood.

The gathering that starts Thursday in St. Louis is in sharp contrast to the bishops' groundbreaking meeting last year in Dallas.

There, abuse victims and other lay Catholics were granted an unprecedented opportunity to assail the bishops for decades of mishandling abuse claims.

At St. Louis, bishops will monopolize the microphones. Victims will gather 14 blocks away for their own national assembly.

At Dallas, the bishops devoted the entire meeting to what was repeatedly called the worst crisis the U.S. church had ever faced. They passed a toughened sex-abuse policy (which was later revised).

In St. Louis, the bishops' committee on abuse will give a report, but otherwise the public agenda covers workaday matters like catechism programs and directives for deacons.

The most intense discussions will occur behind closed doors. Two-thirds of the meeting is being spent in executive sessions that bar Catholic and non-Catholic observers, making the gathering one of the most private for bishops in recent decades.

The executive sessions are partly for "prayer and reflection," but also will ponder the proposal to summon the first national "plenary council" since 1884 - a special meeting where bishops and other Catholics would examine the church's problems.

A third of the bishops are said to support this radical idea, an indication of how serious they consider fallout from the abuse crisis to be.

The other important doors-closed topic will be the ongoing abuse problem itself. Most action has shifted to the 195 individual dioceses, for instance Louisville, which agreed this week to pay $25.7 million to settle suits from 243 victims.

But the national bishops' conference seems certain to air problems with the two new agencies it set up to monitor anti-abuse efforts. One is the Office of Child and Youth Protection, part of the bishops' national staff, which is run by former FBI official Kathleen McChesney.

Last month, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., wrote a parishioner that McChesney's job performance "leaves more than a few bishops for whom she technically works in a state of perplexity." He offered no specifics.

McChesney is guiding dioceses on new "safe environment" programs - training church workers, parents and students to prevent, identify and respond to abuse. She also has hired a firm led by another former FBI official, William Gavin, to audit whether each diocese is complying with the reform policies.

The second agency under the reform policy is the independent National Review Board. Made up of 13 prominent lay Catholics, it supervises McChesney's office and is handling a couple of investigations into the crisis.

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