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Published June 29, 2003
Daily Record of Morris County, N.J. (Gannett)

Openness Would Bring Credibility Back to Church

By Mark Vincent Serrano

Last week former Governor Frank Keating resigned as the Chairman of the Catholic Bishops' National Review Board, charged to examine the bishops' compliance with their 2002 child sexual abuse policy.

This development came as the bishops were about to travel to St. Louis for their annual meeting, marking the 1st anniversary of the passage of their new policy.

The bishops formed the review board last year because they claimed that they wanted lay involvement in resolving the child sexual abuse crisis, and they wanted independent review of their ongoing actions to protect children and support victims.

Keating was clearly forced out as chairman by these same bishops who stated that they welcomed independent review of their actions, but who wouldn't tolerate a member of the laity admonishing them for their refusal to reform the clerical culture where the crisis began and lingers today.

Based on the resignation of Keating, who is well known for his outspokenness, it seems that the bishops have authored the 11th Commandment: Though shall not speak ill of the princes of the church, your bishops, or question their integrity, if you want to remain a Catholic in good standing.

From personal experience I know that Governor Keating is emblematic of most Catholics in America today, particularly as they continue to learn more about the crime and cover-up legacy engineered by the bishops. Keating is a conservative, concerned Catholic; a standard barer, if you will, for all Catholics anguished about the sexual abuse of children by priests, tolerated and perpetuated by bishops over recent decades.

Ironically, Keating did not use the bully pulpit that came with the job, unprecedented for a member of the laity, nearly as aggressively as he could have in the past year.

Keating's ouster is an unquestionable sign from the bishops that stonewalling, killing the messenger, and institutional power plays have become status quo in the ranks of church leadership. It also puts into doubt the ability of the National Review Board to be even remotely independent of the bishops, or capable of objectively assessing the bishops' commitment to change without themselves being purged like Governor Keating.

This latest deceitful action by the bishops affirms the reaction of clergy sexual abuse victims to the establishment of the new church policy one year ago: no institution can police itself.

Furthermore, with 2/3 of the bishops in power today having been implicated in the transfer of priest-perpetrators and criminal cover-ups, the bishops are demonstrating once again that they have no interest in being held accountable by law enforcement agencies, the courts, and least of all, the laity.

From denying prosecutors the personnel files of perpetrators, to claiming constitutional protection from reasonable claims of liability in court, to fighting in statehouses against changes in statutes of limitation for the prosecution of perpetrators and the accountability of all institutions in society, to returning credibly accused sex offenders to ministry, the bishops have waged war against truth, healing, and justice like never before.

As soon as the bishops passed their new policy last year, many returned home to engage in a new campaign of unprecedented denial, obfuscation, and obstruction, under the cover of a public relations tool proclaiming their commitment to do the opposite. They broadened their vast world of gray, judging that most credible claims of abuse by priests do not rise to the level of expulsion from ministry, much less the priesthood.

National Review Board members made it clear that they have no enforcement mechanism to make bishops accountable under church law. They proclaimed that the only way they can realistically make bishops more accountable is to "shout from the treetops" when they see bishops acting contrary to their commitment to openness, transparency, and compassion for victims.

Now we see what happens to well meaning Catholics when they shout from the treetops - they get cut down. The relevance of the National Review Board itself, and the bishops' commitment to change and compassion, is more in question now than ever before.

In announcing the formation of the review board last year, the Bishops' Conference President, Bishop Wilton Gregory, proclaimed that the bishops were setting a new standard for protecting children from rape by priests, and reaching out to victims with a new sense of contrition and Christian love.

Yet the outrages by bishops have continued, with a new sense of resilience and defiance, and the review board has been chopped down as a credible tool for the bishops' compliance.

In the past year, victims of clergy sexual abuse have gained great hope and liberation, but not because of the church's new policies. It is because we are able to speak out with greater confidence, and discover that Catholic's like Frank Keating now believe us enough to challenge the bishops to reform their ways, and keep on challenging them.

If only the bishops held such hope for renewal. Only when the bishops agree to real independent intervention by prosecutors and child safety professionals, real reforms in state laws, and allow their review boards to speak freely about continued disgraces and misconduct by bishops, will the church gain any new credibility in this crisis.

Until then, this is déjà vu all over again in the Catholic Church.

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Mark Vincent Serrano is a national advocate for clergy sexual abuse victims and serves on the Board of Directors of the Survivors Network of those Abused (www.snapnetwork.org) and a former resident of Mendham, N.J. He lives with his wife and children in Northern Virginia.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests