Sunday, November 9, 2003

MILWAUKEE — The nation’s Catholic bishops are reluctantly but slowly “coming on board” in facing their long-standing clergy-abuse scandal, a leading member of the National Lay Review Board said yesterday.

“It’s not been easy,” said Illinois Appellate Court Justice Ann Burke, vice chairwoman of the 12-member board commissioned 17 months ago to investigate the crisis. “It’s not because bishops wanted to, but they knew they needed to and it was time.”

Her speech was a rare window into the workings of an unprecedented lay-led board with the power to investigate the Catholic Church’s own bishops and priests. She was addressing a conference of Call To Action, a liberal Chicago-based Catholic organization that supports female priests and married clergy. The group also opposes official church teachings against contraception and homosexuality.

About 2,800 attendees, mostly persons over 50 who reached adulthood during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, were at the three-day conference at the Midwest Airlines Center downtown.

“Catholics everywhere are heartsick, hurt and embarrassed, in particular by the disclosure of abuse of minors by members of the Roman Catholic clergy,” she said. For most Catholics, “the loss of confidence has been acute, a gnawing sadness of epic proportions.”

In all its meetings, interviews and audits the review board has participated in across the country, she said, it has learned first-hand of the “painful, bitter reality from which many would rather flee. In acknowledging the fact of such widespread abuse. We must admit the grotesque failure of the institutional church.

“In some strange way, it becomes like looking at the autopsy of a friend; too graphic and too startling to bear.”

But “all the news is not bad,” Justice Burke said. An audit of how all 211 Catholic dioceses are implementing the church’s new sexual-abuse policies is due out in January.

To date, 194 dioceses have submitted the needed information, she said. Only one bishop — who she refused to name — held out on submitting his information, insisting only the pope could instruct him to do so.

“Miraculously, I was just informed two weeks ago this is what happened,” she said. “After months of refusals, an authority at the highest level in the Holy See made it patently clear to this bishop he is to cooperate with the audit. He was audited last week.”

On Feb. 27, the review board will release simultaneously to the bishops and the media a report on the nature and scope of the crisis. In 23 dioceses, she said, the settlements alone — not including attorneys fees — total more than $292.9 million.

The Archdiocese of Washington this week released figures on its costs: $4.3 million in legal fees, counseling and victim compensation for cases involving 26 priests over a 50-year period.

By now, bishops have gotten wind that the contents of the Feb. 27 report will be surprising and shocking, she said.

“There have been times when members of the hierarchy have been less than pleased with us,” she said, saying the group has fought to maintain its independence.

The efforts of the board — consisting of prominent Catholics from around the country — has not been without problems. In June, its chairman, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, resigned. In a piece published in the October issue of Crisis magazine, Mr. Keating cited tensions within the board over how to deal with sexually abused victims and with the media and “denial” on the part of the bishops.

When asked about this Crisis article, Justice Burke shrugged.

“That was not all accurate either,” she said.

“It was an unfortunate set of circumstances and timing,” she added, including Mr. Keating’s not physically being able to attend all the meetings.

“The last couple of meetings,” she said, “he called in.”

Her revelations were met with a mixture of enthusiasm and consternation by more than 100 people at her early morning speech.

“There’s massive denial about this,” said one female conferee from Arizona, “not only among conservatives but among moderates.”

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