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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

SNAP Letters

Letter to USCCB President


Feb. 17, 2005

Bishop William S. Skylstad
U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Washington, DC 20017

Dear Bishop Skylstad:

We are troubled by the composition, leadership, and apparent direction of the National Review Board. Over time, we had hoped that this body would gradually "raise the bar" and prod you and your brother bishops toward more vigorous enforcement of the largely vague and weak Dallas Charter. Instead, we see more backsliding by bishops and what feels like less assertiveness by the NRB.

Make no mistake about it: these are accomplished and conscientious individuals, dedicated to their task. We are grateful for their service.

But we are disturbed that some of the more experienced and outspoken among them have quit or been forced out. And we feel it is time to broaden the panel to include more experienced and assertive voices.

Review Board composition

In December, bishops appointed five new board members to their 14 person panel.

The outgoing board members include: a former White House chief of staff, a governor, and former counsel to the President, an Appeals Court judge and child welfare expert, and CEO of a major newspaper chain. (Outgoing board members: the Hon. Leon E. Panetta, Governor Frank Keating, Robert S. Bennett, Justice Anne M. Burke, and William R. Burleigh)

The incoming board members include: an educational consultant, a doctor at a Catholic hospital, a magistrate judge, and two lawyers. (New board members: Dr. Patricia O'Donnell Ewers, Dr. Angelo P. Giardino, Judge Michael Merz, United States Magistrate Judge; Ralph I. Lancaster, and Joseph Russoniello)

One of the lawyers is Joseph Russoniello of San Francisco, whose first public comment on the crisis was disturbing. In arguing AGAINST openness, and publicly naming the names of known, admitted, and suspected abusive clerics, Russoniello said "My experience tells me it's easy to make an accusation -- especially from a deranged, angry, vengeful person striking out against an authority figure." (November 12, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle, "Levada takes heat over abuse inquiry/Panel member resigns, says church suppressed results," by Don Lattin).

Consider the public comments of those NRB members who have left:

Frank Keating wrote in New York Times op-ed piece, of his "frustration over the efforts of a small minority of church leaders to obstruct the workings of the board. When we asked valid questions, they gave us few or no answers. Where information and cooperation was called for, we received delay or an outright refusal to help."

When dozens of bishops wanted to scuttle the entire "audit" process, Justice Anne Burke said "We were manipulated. Those who said bishops were never serious about breaking free from the ... bad judgments of the past will be vindicated."

"These dioceses are separate fiefdoms," said Leon Panetta after the report was released. "It's an almost medieval organization we're dealing with. Each bishop runs his own fiefdom. There is very little communication between those dioceses and bishops and indeed, very little communication between bishops and the Vatican. The basic culture that developed is, 'We take care of our own, we really don't want to open ourselves up to being questioned by others."

We simply see no such tough talk from any of the existing board members. This reticence or complacency is disturbing.

Review Board chairmanship

We're also troubled by the shift in the chairmanship of the panel. Initially, it was headed by Frank Keating, a truly independent, outspoken, high profile, ex-prosecutor.
Now, it's headed by a seemingly less independent, quiet, low profile defense lawyer.
Keating used to be a U.S. Attorney, investigating and prosecuting criminals. Carfardi used to be a defense lawyer for a Catholic bishop.

Keating publicly spoke out when he saw bishops dissembling and back pedaling. Cafardi has not.

Keating earned his living from public and private sectors (as an elected official and an insurance company executive). Cafardi earns his living from church sources (as a lawyer for religious orders and teaching at a Catholic university).

Keating repeatedly made public comments designed to prod bishops toward real reform. Cafardi, however, has not.

Keating believed in studies and research, but also in bluntly calling backsliding bishops to task, in public if need be. Cafardi, apparently, does not.

We're not saying Keating was perfect. But he clearly believed in using both the carrot and the stick, a time-tested approach. We hope Mr. Cafardi and his colleagues would do likewise.

Finally, we're troubled by the shift in the chairmanship of the panel. Initially, it was headed by Frank Keating, a truly independent, outspoken, high profile, ex-prosecutor.


Last year, US Bishops Conference president Wilton Gregory was found guilty of contempt and fined thousands of dollars by an Illinois judge for failing to turn over documents in a civil case against a long-suspended notorious predator in his diocese.

NRB members were silent.

Last year, three dioceses delayed justice and healing, and avoided having church officials give sworn testimony and disclose long-secret documents, by seeking bankruptcy protection. Dozens of other dioceses publicly and privately threatened to follow suit. (Can you imagine Jesus trying to use the secular court system to evade responsibility for sex crimes of his staff?)

NRB members were silent.

In November, bishops elected a controversial new president, William Skylstad of Spokane, who faces 60+ civil lawsuits, has given damaging depositions, lived with his diocese' most notorious predator, has settled very few cases, yet turned to courts and expensive bankruptcy lawyers to prevent a civil trial from proceeding.

NRB members were silent.

In November, bishops quietly, deceptively, and radically scaled back their so-called sex abuse audits, the only even potentially effective step toward any "oversight." (Instead, they are permitting perhaps 90% of their brother bishops to ''self-report.")

NRB members were silent.

In January, a little known and poorly publicized public comment period, during which changes in the Charter could be proposed, quietly ended. As best we can tell, not a single church official offered even one suggestion to toughen even a single aspect of the guidelines.

And NRB members were silent.

It's not just at the national level where NRB members seem largely passive. Disturbing local developments seemingly provoke no outrage or criticism by the NRB.

In Detroit, Michigan last month, during a criminal trial of an allegedly abusive priest, the cleric and his parishioners held a public prayer gathering in the hallway outside the courtroom in front of potential jurors (creating an atmosphere of intimidation for victims and witnesses and eliciting a stern warning from the judge).

NRB members were silent.

In California, days ago, another priest sued his alleged victim for slander. (Ten other clerics have done the same in recent years.)

NRB members were silent. (We have repeatedly begged the board to speak out against this particular chilling tactic.

In Kansas City last week, victims called for Catholics in Bishop Raymond Boland's diocese to donate to schools and charities, not to the diocese, because of repeated hardball legal tactics by the bishop's defense lawyers.

NRB members were silent.

In Jefferson City Missouri last week, SNAP disclosed that allegations had been made against Fr. John Degnan. Diocesan officials tried to keep the news quiet. Now, they admit 17 accusers have come forward.

NRB members were silent.

In Illinois last week, SNAP discovered a priest, who had admitted sexually abusing a teenaged seminarian, working as a University of Chicago campus minister. (This is the third case since 2003 in which a known abuser was found in active ministry in Archdiocese of Chicago.)

NRB members were silent.

In New Jersey, yesterday a large settlement was announced involving 26 victims of abuse. Two of the named priest perpetrators remain in ministry today

NRB members were silent.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, three weeks ago, newly released church documents prove that Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk lied when he claimed the first report of alleged sexual abuse by Fr. David Kelley was in 1994. (It was actually eight years earlier, in 1986.) A church official wrote a memo suggesting that an alleged victim speak to a priest for counseling, rather than mental health professional that would have to report the crime to civil authorities.

In light of all this, we can't help but worry that a supposed 'watch dog' seems to be more of a 'lap dog.' Are they so content with the much-touted and vastly over-rated 'baby steps' made by bishops that they find nothing to comment upon?

Virtually every day, ten to thirty newspaper stories report on criminal charges, civil lawsuits, suspensions of and allegations against allegedly abusive clerics or complicit chancery officials. Some, even after more than three years of seemingly endless scandals and disclosures, still shock us. Yet NRB members are apparently not paying attention or apparently feel no obligation or inclination to speak out against anything.

In the mean time, parishioners and victims morale and confidence continues to fall. A Zogby poll released last week (and cited in Wednesday's USA Today) shows that Catholic's faith in their bishops is at an all time low (57%).

We stress again that we have no person ax to grind against anyone who serves or has served on this panel. These are good people. They work hard. They care. They generously volunteer their time. They are helping.

But the task they face is enormous, the unresolved pain is immense, the rigidity and resistance to reform in the hierarchy is daunting. Timidity and excessive caution is not the order of the day. Continued vigilance and assertiveness will protect children. Nothing less is acceptable.

For these reason, we strongly urge you to expand the NRB and appoint more independent and experienced voices.

Three years ago, we know bishops felt besieged and overwhelmed. We somewhat understand their reluctance to include more outspoken NRB members. But now, there is really no excuse. If indeed substantial progress has been made, your colleagues should have little reason to fear the input of more assertive and independent board members.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you.

David Clohessy
National Director, SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
7234 Arsenal Street
St. Louis MO 63143
314 566 9790 cell, 314 645 5915

Barbara Blaine
President, SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
PO Box 6416
Chicago IL 60680
312 399 4747

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests