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This time, bishops avoid the limelight

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 13, 2003

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 stands 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 and ignoring victims' anguish.

In St. Louis, victims will gather 14 blocks away for their own national assembly.

In Dallas, the bishops devoted the entire meeting to what was repeatedly called the worst crisis the American church had ever faced. They passed a toughened sex abuse policy, which was later revised somewhat.

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

The most intense discussions will occur behind closed doors.

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.

The other important doors-closed topic will be the ongoing abuse problem itself.

But the national bishops' conference seems certain to air problems with the two new agencies it set up to monitor antiabuse 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 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.

The review board has hired New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice to research the extent and patterns of abuse, with data provided by bishops.

But some prelates, worried about the material being used in lawsuits against the church, haven't provided answers pending the St. Louis meeting.

Review board chairman Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, makes no apologies.

"We are only doing what the bishops themselves instructed us to do and what's necessary to restore the faith of the faithful," he said. "The criticism is either misguided, or uninformed, or both."

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