- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Catholic bishops distanced themselves from a nearly four-year-old sex-abuse crisis yesterday during opening sessions of their annual fall business meeting, but were foiled by demonstrators and a $1.8 million budget deficit.

During Bishop William Skylstad’s opening address, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) spoke highly of the nation’s 43,422 Catholic priests, saying “a handful of our brother priests” were responsible for the crisis.

“Perhaps never so much as during the scandals of the past four years has so much attention been focused on the priesthood,” he told 280 bishops gathered at the Capitol Hyatt. This happened “not for all of its wonder, commitment, dedication and perseverance, but for the darkness and sin which overwhelmed some.”

“It has been a personally painful time for the vast majority of priests who did nothing to deserve that pain.”

The USCCB estimates that 5,148 priests were responsible for 11,750 instances of child sex abuse from 1950 to 2002.

Also yesterday, bishops voted to transfer $1.8 million from an endowment fund to balance their $131 million 2006 budget.

Dennis Schnurr, bishop of Duluth, Minn., and chairman of the budget committee, said the panel was “certainly alarmed by the magnitude of this deficit budget.”

Money has been depleted by more than $3 million for the USCCB’s National Review Board, which monitors how well dioceses dealt with sexually abusive priests, and its Office of Child and Youth Protection.

Across the street from the Hyatt, two Wisconsin families asked the bishops for tighter controls on what kinds of men are admitted to seminaries.

The families said the Rev. Ryan Erickson, 31, showed many abusive and dangerous tendencies in the years before, authorities say, he killed Dan O’Connell, 39, and James Ellison, 22, at a Hudson, Wis., funeral home.

On Oct. 3, St. Croix County Circuit Judge Eric Lundell ruled that the priest shot the two men in 2002 after Mr. O’Connell accused the priest of child molestation. Erickson killed himself in December after being questioned by police for a second time in the slayings.

“Both the families believe this was a preventable homicide,” said Tom O’Connell, brother of Dan O’Connell. “We believe the Vatican does not have an understanding of the extreme nature of the [clergy sex abuse] problem in the United States.”

In response, Tucson, Ariz., Bishop Gerald Kicanas said, “It’s tragic to hear the pain of parents who’ve lost a son, and our hearts go out to them.”

In other business, the bishops began discussing an updated statement on the death penalty to be issued 25 years after the USCCB’s first statement.

“It is a way for us as a body to affirm our common commitment at a new time when there are more allies, arguments and momentum on this important matter of life and death,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., adding that fewer than 50 percent of U.S. Catholics approve of the death penalty.

“We do not shape our teachings to fit the polls,” the bishop said, although he added that the USCCB is happy to influence public attitudes.

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