Some Catholic bishops urge conference to reach consensus on sex abuse crisis in American church

A psychologist who works with clergy sex abuse victims told the nation’s Catholic bishops Tuesday that the key to solving the crisis now facing the church in the United States and around the world is to focus on victims first.

“We need to listen to those who have been harmed, to those who have been impacted,” Dr. Heather Banis, the victims’ assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said in an address at the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. “We need to listen — not just to make policy, but to truly understand the full impact of all that happened in order to be able to nurture a healing environment.”

After Banis addressed the bishops on the second day of a three-day conference, a meeting that observers had predicted would be the most consequential gathering of American Catholic leadership in years, the bishops themselves took up the issue of sexual abuse by clergy.

Some bishops urged the others to bear in mind the urgency of a situation that has victimized tens of thousands, cost the church more than $4 billion in payouts in the United States alone and caused many lifelong Catholics to question their faith.

Others said questions about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were of particular concern to parishioners, especially how the former Washington archbishop was able to rise through the ranks of the church, even though many fellow clerics appeared to know of his involvement in sex abuse cases.

McCarrick resigned this summer from the College of Cardinals amid sex abuse allegations, the first in a succession of high-profile cases that have roiled the church this year.

In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed more than 300 “predator priests” had sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year span. Then, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington resigned over allegations he had mishandled the cases of several abusive priests while bishop of Pittsburgh.

But other bishops said Tuesday that most of the cases in the current scandal occurred before 2002, when they established a charter for the protection of young people against sex abuse that has reduced the reported number of such cases. Some wondered openly whether the media had exaggerated the severity of the crisis for commercial reasons.

The day ended with many bishops expressing hope that the group would be able to produce a strong and coherent statement to be delivered to Pope Francis when Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the organization, attends a February summit in Rome with heads of bishops’ organizations from other nations.

But there was no assurance of such an outcome.

The Vatican instructed DiNardo shortly before the start of the Baltimore conference on Monday that the U.S. bishops should not vote before the February meeting on any policies to address the crisis. And, in the face of requests from some bishops for a vote on a resolution or some other official show of support for action, DiNardo promised only to listen carefully and convey the bishops’ thinking to the Holy Father.

Still, some held out hope the bishops could come together on the issue.

“It’s clear that the bishops represent a broad range of views, but we do always seem to find our way to some sort of a consensus,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., communications director of the conference.

Near the meeting at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott, several hundred protesters assembled at the MECU Pavilion. They rallied to urge the bishops — the heads of nearly 200 dioceses across the country — to stand against sexual abuse by clergy, even though the recent scandal has implicated some of their number. They prayed. At least one held a rosary, while others carried signs that said, “The bishops knew” and “Silence Stops Now.”

“It has taken too long for victims to come forward because there was no place for their claims to be heard...,” said James Grein, one speaker who said he was a survivor of abuse. “But the silence will no longer trick us into forgetting or ignoring the scandal.”

One protester outside the hotel said she’s a Catholic who is appalled at the notion that her tithes may have been used as a payout to victims of sexually abusive priests.

“How can we pass on the faith to our children and grandchildren when we know this?” asked Connie Law.

Things were more sedate inside, where the clerics spent most of the day hearing and discussing a slate of proposals developed by their organization’s administrative committee for addressing the abuse crisis. With votes on the proposals no longer planned, the bishops addressed each of the action plans as discussion items, hearing summaries and offering comments and questions.

The proposals include a recommendation for the creation of an independent third-party reporting system for the faithful to use in filing complaints regarding sex abuse by bishops and the creation of a code of conduct specifically for bishops.

Before the afternoon discussion, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore was among several bishops who addressed the group, expressing concern that it would ultimately fail to display resolve to take action that many Catholics expect.

“Hearing from our people, listening to our people as we’ve been trying to do, I think there really is a groundswell — at least a sense — that action [should] be taken by the whole body … I’m wondering if, in light of that, even if we don’t have a formal vote, is it possible that we do something that would indicate the sense of the house as we go forward?” Lori said.

The latest news of abuses brought attention to the fact that the 2002 charter to protect children from sex abuse by clergy covered priests and deacons but exempted bishops. Francesco Cesareo, the head of the bishops’ National Review Board, an independent lay advisory panel, gave a report Tuesday that urged expanding the scope of the 2002 charter to include bishops.

He also called for every diocese in the country to publish complete lists of clergy who have been “credibly accused” of sex abuse.

Cesareo also mentioned the case of Robert Morneau, a retired auxiliary bishop of Green Bay, Wis., who withdrew in September from public ministry after acknowledging his failure to report a priest’s sexual abuse of a minor 40 years earlier, a decision that allowed the priest to assault other youths. Cesareo appeared to ask some of his listeners to consider following Morneau’s example.

“A canonical preoceeding did not force him to withdraw,” Cesareo said. “He did so out of conscience. That’s the kind of action some of you must take” in order to help the church “restore trust.”

Baltimore Sun photographer Kim Hairston and reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.

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