Catholic Bishops to Meet in Baltimore

The Catholic Bishops begin their annual meeting today in Baltimore. John Allen gives a preview. Most of the agenda will deal with internal matters. A much anticipated report on the “causes and context” of the sexual abuse crisis will attract the most attention, I suspect:

Researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Fordham University (both in New York) will present preliminary results of their study of the causes and context of the sexual abuse crisis. Among other things, the findings are expected to offer a contrast between the periods 1960-1990 and 1990-2002, suggesting that the number of incidents declined and the aggressiveness of the church’s response improved in the latter period. The bishops have already spent $1 million on the study and expect to eventually allocate $2 million, with the project slated for completion in 2009. The results will be keenly anticipated, since the underlying causes of the sex abuse crisis remain a matter of keen Catholic debate.

Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, will become president; this prompts Jason Berry to ask, “Is the Church Really This Blind?” He sees George as a symbol of the failure of the bishops to “get” the sexual abuse scandal.

The problem is that George shows little indication of having internalized the lessons of the scandal. He displays a stunning insensitivity to the church’s failures. And twice since the 2002 conference in Dallas that adopted the youth protection charter, George has flouted the church’s supposed zero-tolerance attitude in his handling of abusive priests.

In February 2003, for instance, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Father Kenneth Martin of Wilmington, Del., a consultant to the archdiocese on liturgical texts, had been staying at the cardinal’s mansion during his monthly visits to Chicago. He had been staying there despite the fact that he had pleaded guilty in 2001 in Maryland to sexually abusing a teenage boy over three years in the 1970s when he was a lay teacher. Martin received a suspended sentence and was declared by the diocese to be a “priest in good standing” in Wilmington, provided he not do public ministry.

Needless to say, this was shocking news. The members of the 12-person National Review Board, which had been appointed by the Conference of Catholic Bishops to conduct research on the causes and context of the scandal and report back with recommendations on how to avoid future scandals, had met with George just the day before the story broke in the Sun-Times — yet he had told them nothing about the priest’s visits. What could be more telling about George’s attitude than his willingness to welcome an admitted pedophile as a houseguest?

When Sun-Times reporter Cathleen Falsani asked George why he had allowed Martin to stay in his official residence after his misdeeds had become known, and why the priest was still working for the archdiocese as a consultant, George did not apologize but defended his colleague. “Are we saying that people with any kind of question in their past are not employable?” he responded. “Unless we want to say these people are simply permanent pariahs, is it appropriate to put his [Martin’s] life under scrutiny that way?”

“When I read the Sun-Times,” said former Rep. Leon Panetta, a California Democrat who served on the National Review Board and was one of those who had met with George that week, “it confirmed for me what is at the heart of this [pedophile priest] problem — the [Catholic] hierarchy’s failure to understand the seriousness of the crisis.”

Members of the National Review Board made a second trip to Chicago nearly a year later to consult with the cardinal. George celebrated Mass for them, but then, according to three sources present at the meeting, he issued a warning over coffee and doughnuts: “You will be the downfall of the church!”

The group was dumbstruck. “The bishops and priests have failed to deal with this [scandal],” Panetta said he told George. The healing process could not begin, Panetta said, unless the church acknowledged the problem.

Several people present at the meeting subsequently confirmed George’s remarks before I called the cardinal for comment for an article for the National Catholic Reporter. George’s spokesman called me back to say: “The cardinal categorically denies making the statement attributed to him, and anyone who said that he said that either heard him wrong or misunderstood him.”

But matters got worse. In August 2005, police questioned Father Daniel McCormack of Chicago after a mother charged that he had molested her 8-year-old son at Our Lady of the Westside School, where he taught. In October, George ignored his own archdiocesan review board’s recommendation to remove McCormack, instead allowing him to continue teaching and coaching. In January 2006, McCormack was arrested on charges of sexually abusing another boy at the school. When asked about it, the cardinal, incredulously, said he had taken no action because he had had no information from law enforcement. McCormack has since pleaded guilty and gone to jail.

The archdiocese did take action against Barbara Westrick, the school’s principal, who had called the police after she learned of the complaint against the priest. She was fired in June. Although the archdiocese denies it, it seems likely that her criticisms of the church’s response cost her her job.

Would the bishops desist from electing George? No, the “election” to the presidency is a formality; the person who has served as vice president moves up to president even if he is in the midst of a scandal. The outgoing president, William Skylstad of Spokane, took office three years ago, days after he had announced his diocese would declare bankruptcy.

John Allen notes that financial scandals (such as diocesan bankruptcies) will also be on the agenda.

Update: Cardinal George now in hot water for saying sexual abuse law suits are just about money.