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Spotlight Report

Bishop says church has 'turned corner' on sex abuse crisis

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/10/2003

WASHINGTON -- The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday that the Catholic Church has "turned the corner" on the sexual abuse crisis, but that the process of restoring trust will take years.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, speaking to the Globe in an interview on the eve of today's opening of the fall meeting of the bishops' conference, acknowledged the church's moral authority has been damaged by revelations that hundreds of priests sexually abused minors during the last five decades. But, he said, the church will continue to speak out on moral issues as the presidential campaign intensifies.

Gregory said the bishops' conference has discussed, but has not yet decided whether to pursue, launching a public relations campaign to call attention to the ongoing "good works" of the church as the bishops prepare for the February release of a church-commissioned quantitative study of clergy sexual abuse that Gregory has predicted will be "startling."

"We want the truth to be told, and the truth won't be told unless we make it available," Gregory said.

"I believe that it is important that we not lose context of all that the church has done, and continues to do with such clarity, generosity, and effectiveness," he said. "We still feed the poor, we still assist immigrants, we still are engaged in international questions of import -- that's part of who we are as Catholics."

The sexual abuse crisis, which began with reports in the Globe in January 2002, has dominated Gregory's tenure as president of the bishops' conference, which began in November 2001. Gregory, 55, who is the bishop of Belleville, Ill., this week begins the final year of his three-year term as conference president, a job that makes him the leading spokesman for the nation's largest religious denomination, Roman Catholicism, which claims 65 million US adherents.

This week's semiannual meeting of the bishops' conference will include an update from the lay National Review Board, which in February is to release its study of the scope of the abuse crisis and later to release a second study of the causes of the crisis. Leaders of a variety of lay organizations critical of the bishops, including Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, and Survivors First, have traveled to Washington to call attention to their concerns about the church's response to the crisis.

But the bishops' meeting will be dominated by discussion of other issues. Yesterday, dozens of bishops, including Boston's Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, gathered for a discussion of war and peace issues. The bishops also plan to debate statements explaining the church's opposition to same-sex marriage; suggesting ways in which Catholic social teaching should affect agriculture policy; and answering questions about popular devotional practices.

The bishops plan to debate adding new restrictions on the bishops' conference's $175 million investment portfolio, barring investment in companies involved in pornography, embryonic stem cell research, fetal tissue research, cloning, production and sale of land mines, sweatshops, and predatory lending. The bishops' conference already refuses to invest in companies involved in abortion, contraceptives, and weapons production, and companies guilty of racial and gender discrimination.

"We won't have a bishops meeting in the foreseeable future where the issue of the protection and safety of children is not a component -- there will not be a moment in . . . my lifetime, I imagine, where this concern won't have some place on the bishops' agenda," Gregory said. "However, there are other issues that also must receive the proper attention that they deserve, and that's what our agenda reflects today."

Gregory said an audit being conducted by the bishops' staff will be released in January and will show that the nation's 195 dioceses are complying with promises they made last year to revamp their procedures for dealing with sexual abuse allegations. He said the dioceses have appointed lay review boards to consider allegations, reported allegations to civil authorities, hired victim assistance coordinators, and implemented training programs to prevent abuse in the future. And he said the church's study of the scope of clergy sexual abuse over five decades will be a step toward full disclosure that no other institution in American society has taken. He said he hopes other institutions that work with children will follow suit.

"I have said repeatedly that this is not an add-water-and-stir kind of solution, because trust is a very important and fragile kind of relationship, and once it's broken, shattered, or restrained, it takes a long time to restore it," he said. "You have to do it gradually, by one consistent act and one clear step at a time. I think we're doing that."

Gregory said the church's voice in public life has been damaged, but not muted, by the crisis. He said, for example, that bishops will continue to speak out against same-sex marriage, a subject of debate around the country, including in Massachusetts, where the Supreme Judicial Court is considering a request to legalize such unions.

"We Catholics are part of this nation, and we have a responsibility to be actively engaged in the political processes and the public debate," Gregory said. "Certainly there's been a challenge to the church's moral voice -- one would be naive not to believe that the past two years has influenced our moral standing -- but it hasn't silenced us, nor will it silence us."

Gregory said he was heartened by a Gallup Poll released last week that showed public opinion about the bishops' handling of the crisis is improving. He said his own experience in Belleville, where he fully discloses church finances, suggests "the more people know, the better they feel about their church, and the better they feel, the more inclined to be generous they are."

"I think we've turned the corner," Gregory said. "We're not near the finish line, but we are making honest and sincere efforts to do what needs to be done to protect children and to be accountable for our actions."

Offering his first comments about the ordination of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as an Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire, Gregory said the action will inevitably add a new wrinkle to Catholic-Episcopal relations, already strained by the Episcopal church's decades-old decision to ordain women as priests.

"Our concern is the impact of this action on the ecumenical dialogue -- it is of great importance to the Catholic church, and I also believe to the Episcopal church, that we continue speaking with one another about the ecumenical concerns that are mutual," he said. "This particular action puts a strain on that ecumenical dialogue. How serious a strain? I don't know. But it's definitely impacted."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.


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