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USCCB committee bishops accused of abuse cover-up

3 members of panel named in lawsuits; criticism called unfair

Monday, January 19, 2004
By SUSAN HOGAN/ALBACH / The Dallas Morning News

Three of five bishops on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' sexual abuse committee are accused in lawsuits of aiding cover-ups of molestation by clergy, according to a background check by The Dallas Morning News.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse is preparing a response to clergy sex scandals for the bishops' June meeting in Dallas. The bishops are hoping to rebuild trust from the fallout.
But that effort is undermined by the makeup of the committee, said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. He said the bishops tied to scandals should step aside, regardless of guilt or innocence.

"If they don't, it seriously impairs the credibility of the committee and the sincerity of all the bishops," he said. "Catholics already think bishops as a whole botched this issue."

Two-thirds of the nation's 62 million Catholics said in recent polls that molestation by priests is a significant problem. Bishops are being widely criticized for their handling of deviant priests and, in some cases, aiding cover-ups.

Bishops say the criticism isn't fair. They say many of the pedophile cases date back 30 to 50 years to a time when psychiatrists assured them the behavior was curable. No one thinks that anymore, they say.

"We used to think of this as a moral lapse, and now we know it is a crime," said Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante, the national spokesman for the bishops' conference. "I would be shocked at anybody who would continue to reassign priests who have this kind of a history."

Two bishops on the sexual abuse committee are named in lawsuits recently filed by attorney Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who has represented 400 clients in cases against dioceses and priests.

"It's like the FBI's most wanted list of criminal concealers," he said of the bishops' sex abuse committee. "After years of sex scandals, Catholic bishops still say, 'It's just a few priests. We relied on the therapists.' It's the same old song."

Named in lawsuits

The committee members under scrutiny are:

•Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo. A new lawsuit accuses him of conspiring to cover up molestation by Anthony O'Connell, who resigned last month as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting to abusing seminary students 25 years ago in the Missouri diocese.

•Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn of Cleveland. Comments he made in 1990 on how to prevent public access to files on pedophile priests are being used in a lawsuit filed last week that will attempt to prove Vatican culpability in protecting molesters.

•Bishop John M. McCormack of Manchester, N.H. He has spent nine years as Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's adviser on how to handle clergy sexual abusers, and is named in two lawsuits. The nation's current pedophile crisis erupted in Boston, where church leaders moved a former priest accused of molesting 130 children from parish to parish for 30 years.

Bishop Quinn couldn't be reached for comment. Bishop McCormack's spokesman said the bishop had dealt aggressively with molesters. "That makes him perfect for the committee," Patrick McGee said.

Bishop Gaydos, who has been in Jefferson City since 1997, said he learned about Bishop O'Connell's misconduct only two weeks before it became public.

"I've not been involved in a cover-up," he said. "But if people want somebody else on the committee, I won't stand in the way. I'll do anything to continue the work of the church."

The other committee members are Bishops Galante and George Niederauer of Salt Lake City.

"We have to earn back the trust of our people," Bishop Galante said. "We know we cannot just assume trust."

Third wave

Since the Boston case came to light in January, dozens of priests in more than 10 states have been removed because of allegations of sexual misconduct. Catholics are calling it the third wave of scandals.
The watershed case in 1985 involved former priest Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La., and more than 70 victims. In 1992, former priest James Porter was charged with molesting more than 100 children in Minnesota, Massachusetts and New Mexico.

Dallas was thrust into the spotlight in 1997, after a judge ordered the diocese to pay nearly $120 million in damages for molestation cases involving Rudolph "Rudy" Kos. The award was later negotiated to a $31 million settlement.

"After the colossal, tragic disaster in 1985, the bishops have no excuse for not handling this," said William Donohue of the Catholic League, a media watchdog group based in New York.

Refusing to believe

But disbelief among Catholics may have played a role in the problem, too. Until recently, many didn't believe that priests would commit sex crimes. Victims were ostracized and their stories attacked as media fabrications attempting to discredit the church.
Today, the outcries of victims are being joined by outrage from the pews in response to new reports of crimes and cover-ups. The financial drain is expected to top $1 billion. The fallout in respect for the bishops is immeasurable.

"The bishops have lost their moral prestige," Mr. Donohue said. "It's a self-inflicted wound. You can't blame the media or anti-Catholicism for the implosion."

Bishops formed the sex abuse committee in 1993, a year after they announced five principles for dealing with sexual abuse: prompt response to allegations, quick removal of alleged offenders from ministry, adherence to civil laws requiring reporting incidents, assisting victims and respecting privacy.

The norms were guidelines and left bishops in the nearly 200 dioceses across the country free to establish their own policies, or to have none at all. Catholics are calling for a uniform national policy, which would need the Vatican's approval to become binding.

"Bishops understand the need to be more accountable to their flock so that we don't have a patchwork-quilt response," Bishop Galante said.

'Zero credibility'

Many bishops are calling for "zero tolerance" of priests who molest minors. But many Catholics want a full accounting of how many clergy have been caught up in scandals, as well as tougher reforms.
"The reason the bishops are going for zero tolerance is because they have zero credibility with the public," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America. "In the past, they've apologized for mistakes in these cases. It's going to take a lot more for Catholics to trust them this time."

The verbal assault on bishops comes from moderates, liberals and even conservative Catholics, usually the bishops' most loyal defenders. One of them is Monsignor William Smith, academic dean of St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y.

"Never in my life have I been so embarrassed for the priesthood and so ashamed of our bishops," he said.

Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann said bishops were being unfairly maligned.

"There's a lot of rhetoric out there now," he said. "Bishops are accused of covering up and moving people from one parish to another. That's a bunch of bull."


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests