- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

The lay Catholic panel organized by U.S. bishops as a watchdog in church sexual-abuse cases holds its first meeting today and will hear from a "survivors" group that wants a seat at the table.

Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a Catholic layman who is chairman of the National Review Board, meets this morning with leaders of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

They will also speak to the 12-member board when it meets here this afternoon.

Outside St. Matthew's Cathedral yesterday, SNAP protested that bishops in at least seven states already have violated a "charter" the U.S. bishops adopted in Dallas last month to curb the sex-abuse problem.

"We are dealing with an entrenched power structure," SNAP spokesman Mark Serrano said. "Some bishops are in noncompliance with the charter,"

Dan Mahoney, spokesman for Mr. Keating, said the National Review Board is made up of independent individuals, so groups such as SNAP are not likely to get a seat.

"The governor said that probably no kind of group will be on the board, though groups like SNAP will be invited to speak," Mr. Mahoney said.

In their protest yesterday, SNAP leaders cited news reports about bishops who, since the Dallas meeting, have not dismissed abusers, who have fought to seal court documents, and whose victim hot lines have been manned by diocesan lawyers.

In the Diocese of Richmond, a member of the local review board quit because the bishop reassigned the Rev. John Leonard, who returned from a leave of absence after four persons accused him of abuse.

"All of these cases violate the charter's call for 'openness and transparency,'" Mr. Serrano said. The states cited include Kentucky, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and New York.

The review board, whose members were appointed by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops, was set up to supervise a new church Office for Child and Youth Protection.

The office will report on each diocese annually.

The review board must also appoint a director of the youth protection office, a person who Mr. Keating said "should be a cop a former federal agent or prosecutor, a no-nonsense individual who can give reassurance to the public that this will end."

The bishops' initiative also includes local review boards in each diocese.

In remarks last week, Mr. Keating suggested that the national board would intervene if local boards, which are selected by the bishops, fail to handle tough problems under the local bishop's purview.

Church officials said that while none of the boards has the power to dismiss a bishop who is negligent in abuse cases, they can generate "public pressure" to which bishops must respond.

The four-hour meeting today begins a process of organizing the national board, which holds an afternoon press conference. Mr. Mahoney said Mr. Keating wants to reconvene the group in Oklahoma in mid-September.

The board began with three members, and last week Bishop Gregory appointed eight more, with one seat still open. The hierarchy, Bishop Gregory said, is "seeking the forthright advice of the laity to help resolve the crisis."

Critics of the charter say that in the end, the bishops face no accountability for those who have covered up the problem and who continue to legally fight people who claim to have been abused.

They say the national board has some strong supporters of the bishops.

The meeting comes two days after Pope John Paul II, speaking to World Youth Day in Toronto, for the first spoke in public on the "shame" of the scandal in the church.

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