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 Washington Notebook

April 7, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 13

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"Part of the problem is that [the bishops] are so concerned about stepping on the shoes of a fellow bishop that they have got themselves in a structural bind where a few people can delay and do things contrary to the will of the overwhelming majority -- and I'm assuming it's a majority -- who want to move forward,"

Robert Bennett
Washington attorney and one of the 12-member National Review Board


Abuse audits up-in-the-air; Kerry's Catholicism hits the headlines

By Joe Feuerherd

An anticipated second round of independent audits designed to test diocesan compliance with child protection policies approved by the U.S. Bishops may not happen.

Under pressure from bishops apparently opposed to outside scrutiny of church governance, the 48-member administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided last month to defer a decision on whether to proceed with the 2004 audit. The full body of bishops will consider how to proceed at their next meeting, a private "prayer retreat" scheduled for June in Denver.

A first round of audits, released in January, showed that the vast majority of dioceses had established the child protection programs and procedures called for by the bishops in their June 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth." The 12-member National Review Board established by the bishops to oversee the audits and investigate the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis recommended that the audits be conducted annually.

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The Review Board is "very troubled" by the Administrative Committee's action, said Washington attorney Robert Bennett, a member of the panel. "We feel that the church has made a real positive step toward resolving this problem and we are concerned that if they take a step backward not only will it contribute to more problems but it will cause enormous tensions with the laity," Bennett told NCR.

Bennett expressed concern that a relatively small number of bishops were able to stymie the process. "Part of the problem is that [the bishops] are so concerned about stepping on the shoes of a fellow bishop that they have got themselves in a structural bind where a few people can delay and do things contrary to the will of the overwhelming majority -- and I'm assuming it's a majority -- who want to move forward," said Bennett.

Such a process, said Bennett, makes it "very hard" to establish the procedures that need to be in place "because everything becomes a jump ball -- you never have anything set."

Among the bishops reportedly urging their colleagues to rethink the audit process are New York Cardinal Edward Egan and Lincoln, Nebr., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, both of whom are seen as hostile to the Review Board's role.

In a written statement released to the Washington Post, bishops' conference President Wilton Gregory said the Administrative Committee "strongly reaffirmed" the bishops' support for the Charter.

"It is our conviction that the implementation of the Charter has gone a long way toward restoring to the church in the United States the harmony and peace so deeply disturbed by the crisis of sexual abuse," said Gregory. "However, we are also aware that there is much in the Charter that can receive further implementation, and we have no intention of diminishing our efforts to see that the Charter's goals are fully achieved."

At the Jan. 6 release of the first audit, Kathleen McChesney, Executive Director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, said that "failing to create a long-term plan for accountability and response to the crisis of sexual abuse of children and young people would undermine the substantial efforts that have been made thus far. A short-term solution would be perceived as insensitive to the lifelong pain suffered by victims and as showing an unwillingness to recognize that cases of abuse remain yet unreported, or could occur in the future."


If one measure of a "Good Catholic" is knowing how to scramble during a busy weekend to find the last locally offered Sunday Mass, then John Kerry meets the test.

Procrastinators in South Boston can fulfill their obligation as late as 8:00 p.m. at Our Lady of Good Voyage, the waterfront chapel associated with St. Vincent DePaul Parish. "It's quite a popular Mass and John Kerry has been going there for years," former Boston Mayor and Clinton Administration Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn told NCR.

Kerry's Mass-going habits, and most everything else associated with his religious life, are now the subject of considerable scrutiny. (Among the less startling revelations: Kerry was an altar boy and he wore rosary beads around his neck while serving in Vietnam.)

Politically active Catholics -- liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, and independents -- are abuzz. A key question: What plans has the hierarchy (collectively or individually) for a presidential nominee who publicly embraces both his faith and a public policy position on abortion that runs directly counter to the teachings of the pope and the bishops?

Collectively, the bishops named an ad hoc committee last year that will provide "guidelines" for them on how to treat Catholics politicians they see as straying too far from church teaching on abortion, but also on issues of economic justice, war and peace, and family life. The committee, which was appointed last September (before Kerry was the presumptive nominee), will likely issue its suggestions after the November elections.

In the meantime, it's something of a free-for-all. At one extreme is St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke (who as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., issued an order banning pro-choice Catholic legislators from taking communion). Burke told the press prior to the recent Missouri primary that if Kerry presented himself for communion he would refuse him the sacrament.

Other local churches take a permissive view. In the Washington archdiocese -- where on any given Sunday during the Congressional session dozens of pro-choice Catholic politicians queue up for communion -- Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has issued no edicts or warnings. McCarrick chairs the bishops committee drafting the guidelines. (At last November's bishop meeting, he cautioned that Catholic candidates who buck the church might benefit from a backlash if they are publicly targeted by members of the hierarchy.)

And then there's Boston. Archbishop Sean O'Malley has taken something of a middle course, telling pro-choice Catholic office holders that they should take it upon themselves to refrain from receiving communion. (Which didn't prevent the Unification Church-controlled Washington Times from noting on its April 5 front page that if Kerry attends Easter Mass in his diocese "he faces the implied threat from Archbishop Sean O'Malley of being refused Communion.")

What does Kerry have to say for himself? In an answer that could use some refining (note the reference to "Pius XXIII"), Kerry told the press April 5 that "I'm not a church spokesman. I'm a legislator running for president. My oath is to uphold the Constitution of the United States in my public life. My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II, which allows for freedom of conscience for Catholics with respect to these choices, and that is exactly where I am. And it is separate. Our constitution separates church and state, and they should be reminded of that."

Meanwhile, questions both silly and substantive are bandied about: Did Kerry receive an annulment of his first marriage? (The campaign refuses to comment, calling it a private matter.) Was he wrong to take communion on Palm Sunday at the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church? Did he skip Palm Sunday Mass? (Maybe he made it to the Good Voyage Chapel last-chance Mass.)

Vincentian Fr. David O'Connell, president of Catholic University, says Kerry's candidacy represents a "teaching moment" for the church.

If that's the case, and unless things change between now and November, it looks like most everyone involved is headed for a failing grade.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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