Watchdogs to Bishops

While the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church primarily involves priests, little public attention has been paid to the fact that the vast majority of youth workers in the church are not ordained – and the scandal is changing how they work with kids. This is the first of two articles about the church’s response to the scandal as a youth-serving entity.

The first story looks at how national church leaders are trying to restore credibility to the institution. The second will examine how the changes are affecting Catholic-sponsored youth work at the local level.

When a panel of prominent Catholics assigned to oversee child sex abuse prevention in the church planned to meet in New York recently, they ran into a conflict with a rather key figure: the city’s cardinal.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, according to members of the National Review Board, objected to the panel’s plans for meeting in the city, and said the head of the board’s child protection office should turn down an invitation to speak at a church there.

Considering the authoritarian nature of the church – where the only person who can overrule a cardinal is the pope – one might have expected the board members to just live with it.

On the contrary, they responded in a way that would generally be unthinkable for a nonprofit’s advisory panel: They told the director to speak at the church and took on the cardinal in the media.

“Cardinal Egan Upsets Members of Review Board Studying Abuse,” read the Jan. 15 headline in The New York Times. “We have a job to do, and we’re going to do it,” Washington lawyer and board member Robert S. Bennett told the newspaper. “And we want and expect his full cooperation.”

Months later, board member Jane Chiles explains why they struck back so hard: “We needed to establish our independence.”

The board’s independence is one of the most essential and remarkable elements of the church’s attempt to dig itself out from the child sex abuse scandal that has crippled everything from its image to its donations. That effort is affecting the work of the countless thousands of youth ministers, coaches, mentors, teachers and camp staffers in church organizations, who comprise what may be the country’s biggest nongovernmental network of youth programs.

In Cleveland, volunteer coaches get fingerprinted. In Maryland, youth ministers watch a video that bluntly discusses child molesters in the church. In Anchorage, Alaska, youth workers are advised not to hug children.

For youth workers and agency managers watching the scandal as if it’s a far-off train wreck, the church response offers lessons not only about confronting the risk of sex abuse within any youth-serving group, but about responding to any type of potentially embarrassing complaint and reacting when allegations become public.

Imagine a youth organization publicly declaring that it endangered children, and that it wanted a group of outsiders to monitor its corrective efforts and publicly expose anyone in the organization who fails. Board member Michael Bland, a counselor who was abused by a clergyman as a child, calls it a “remarkable” move: “Would CEOs ask to have themselves audited?”

While inviting such scrutiny may be necessary for an organization to recover, one of the biggest questions is how that group of outsiders can win cooperation from the organization’s long-established powers, who really wish the outsiders weren’t there.

Value of a Crisis

It is almost impossible to overstate the feeling of crisis that pervades the Catholic Church in the United States.

In conversations, speeches and church-produced materials such as pamphlets and videos about abuse, everyone from bishops down to volunteers talks about it frankly: Board member Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University Law School, talks on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) website about “a real anger among the faithful in the pews.” In a new set of guidelines to help youth ministers respond to the scandal, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry suggests telling youth that “the lack of honesty has caused some of our problems.”

This almost unheard- of bluntness comes after decades of responding to sex abuse allegations by closing ranks and covering up. It is typical of organizations dealing with outside allegations, especially when the allegations involve a subject as sensitive as child abuse. The Boy Scouts of America refused to acknowledge, even internally, its own sex abuse problem until lawsuits and publicity forced it to begin making significant changes in the 1980s.

But after even several lawsuits in the 1980s drew national publicity to the problem in the church, and after the USCCB created an ad hoc committee on sex abuse in 1993, church leaders pretty much kept their ship steaming toward the iceberg. Review board member Judge Anne Burke, of the Illinois Court of Appeals, says the bishops “went to Washington” to talk about the problem, “knew about it, and went back to their dioceses and did nothing.”

The reasons are complex and stretch back centuries, but in some ways the leadership’s behavior fits a contemporary corporate pattern: As with the Boy Scouts more than a decade earlier, top executives convinced themselves that the problem wasn’t as big as critics claimed – certainly not big enough to force fundamental changes in an organization that was incredibly successful. Besides, acting aggressively risked panicking people (such as parishioners) into thinking that sex abuse was common in the church.

The leaders were confident they could handle the issue quietly, and saw those demanding more as hysterics or heretics.

Journalist Jason Berry, whose book about sex abuse by priests (Lead Us Not Into Temptation) in the early 1990s helped to uncover the scandal, wrote in The New York Times last year, “The crisis facing the Catholic Church is a tragedy that has been decades in the making. … Only recently has the church been forced by the public and the victims to acknowledge this record of abuse.”

Several national forces combined to push the issue beyond the church’s control, including the public’s increasing knowledge about and willingness to discuss uncomfortable issues like sex abuse, the public’s penchant for using courts to extract huge financial payouts for personal harm, and the aggressive news media. Lawsuits and news stories mounted, until the problem exploded over the past two years as internal documents about the church’s secretive and possibly illegal handling of sex abuse allegations were released in court.

The relentless wave of negative press and public anger has caused donations and church attendance to drop around the country. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston was forced to resign, while his old archdiocese has considered filing for bankruptcy.
“Lay people in the United States are very well-educated,” Burke says. “They have a great faith, but they aren’t going to be led blindly. When they see a cover-up, they see a cover-up.”

When it comes to handling allegations about systematic failure, organizations often act like alcoholics and drug addicts: They don’t confront their self-destructive disorders until they’re in dire trouble. The BSA instituted a child protection system, including better education and screening of volunteers and staff, after its attorneys said it needed to do more to shield itself from a growing number of civil suits. “Only crisis in the Catholic Church has changed it,” Burke says.

That explains why the bishops recruited a group of lay people to, as Bland says on the USCCB website, figure out “what got us into this mess” and help them dig out of it.

The Outsiders

“The church in the United States is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times.”

That’s the very first sentence of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the USCCB last June (and passed in a revised form in November after making changes to satisfy the Vatican). The charter lays out policies and procedures for all 195 dioceses in the United States for preventing and dealing with sex abuse. It will guide them in deciding who is allowed to work with children in Catholic organizations, how youth workers are screened and trained, what they can and cannot do with children, and how abuse allegations are handled.

The bishops knew, however, that they were not the ones to oversee a plan to combat sex abuse in the church.

“They had essentially botched it,” says Chiles, a community activist and former executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “They realized that in order to have not just the credibility it [the charter] needs, but for it to be really effective,” oversight would have to come from outside the church’s ordained hierarchy.

Thus the charter called for the creation of an Office for Child and Youth Protection within the USCCB, to be monitored by the National Review Board, which reports to the conference president (currently, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Illinois).

To chair the board, the bishops chose outgoing and outspoken Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) – a move that showed the bishops’ willingness to have an independent board, even at the risk of stirring anger in their own ranks. Some prominent Catholics criticized the move because Keating, a Catholic, supports the death penalty (which was carried out dozens of times on his watch) and had publicly criticized the church over the abuse scandal.

The other 12 board members are Catholic as well, several of them very active in church organizations. But it is a group of people who have established significant reputations in their fields and who hardly depend on the bishops for a living. For example, the board members politely rejected suggestions from the bishops to add a priest to their panel.

To head the child protection office, they turned to the FBI – hiring away Assistant Executive Director Kathleen McChesney, the agency’s third-ranking official and a 30-year veteran of law enforcement.

Board members say they wanted someone with the fact-finding experience of law enforcement, and with administrative experience in overseeing policy implementation and dealing with organizational crises. Thanks to incidents that have become household names – such as Waco, Texas, and Sept. 11 – McChesney knows what it’s like to help run an organization that is under public scrutiny for failures by some of its members.

McChesney and USCCB have strived to overcome doubts that she can be independent while working for the bishops. In an interview on the USCCB website, McChesney said that part of her job is to “make sure bishops and priests are accountable.”
How does a 51-year-old woman who calls herself an “average Catholic” do that in a male-dominated organization where the leaders answer to much higher authorities?

Here to Help

When she’s not on the road visiting dioceses, McChesney can be found in a roomy, sparsely decorated office in the USCCB’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. McChesney, who began her work in November, is polite, friendly and to the point. After a few minutes of niceties at a small round conference table, she says, “So how can I help you?”

She’s been asking the same thing of the bishops. Her job is to help the dioceses comply with the charter, oversee audits to make sure they do, and produce a public report on the audit results. Her budget is about $1 million.

The office won’t produce training materials, but will act as a sort of clearinghouse for best practices from church organizations around the country and for resources, such as child protection curricula. (Some of this is already on the USCCB’s website.) It probably won’t provide any money.

To help establish the guidelines, the board plans to consult outside groups such as the BSA and Prevent Child Abuse America, which recently made a presentation to board members. “I was very encouraged by their openness,” said Prevent Child Abuse President Sid Johnson.

But what’s to make any diocese follow the plan? McChesney, the review board and the USCCB don’t have authority to discipline bishops. That’s why the charter calls for an audit, which McChesney says will be conducted by outside firms under her supervision. The public audit will list dioceses that do not comply.

“That is a list that no bishop is going to want to be on,” Chiles says.

If anyone doubted its willingness to publicly cite a bishop for not cooperating, the board hopes the Egan case settled that.

‘You Go’

The board knows it’s a touchy situation, coming into town to determine if the clergy in authority are doing enough to stop church personnel from molesting kids. So the board members and McChesney go on the road to meet as many bishops as they can.
Board members stress that most of the bishops have been extremely cooperative, as in Washington, D.C., and Santa Barbara, Calif.

There have been two bumps. When Keating hosted a board meeting in his home state, Oklahoma City Archbishop Eusebius J. Beltran rejected the board’s request to meet for dinner and say mass. Members chalked that up to bad blood between the bishop and the governor: Beltran and Keating have publicly and angrily clashed over the death penalty and over Keating’s suggestion that Catholics not donate to or attend churches in dioceses that don’t respond well to the sex-abuse scandal.

But when board member Pamela D. Hayes, a Manhattan attorney, planned to host a board meeting in New York, things got tense.

Egan sent word that McChesney should not speak at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, which had invited her to talk about the child protection effort, board members said. She asked the board what to do.

“We said, ‘You go,’” Burke says. “Her job is to speak around the United States. No bishop can tell her no.” She spoke at St. Ignatius last month.

There is disagreement over the cardinal’s other message. “We were told we were not to have the board meeting in New York,” Burke says. Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling says Egan just didn’t want them to attend, as a group, the annual dinner of a Catholic fraternal organization. Some board members agree; others say it was unclear where the cardinal drew the line.

Whatever the interpretation, several members saw Egan’s response as a challenge to the board’s independence. Burke says the board told Bishop Gregory, “We appreciate his [Egan’s] concern, but we are going to meet there.” Egan informed them that he and his auxiliary bishops would be out of town and could not meet with or say mass for the board.

The board decided to go public with the dispute. Board member Bennett told a New York Times reporter about the conflict – exposing Egan nationally as not cooperating to help resolve what is perhaps the greatest crisis to ever hit the church in the United States.

Zwilling says it was a misunderstanding. Egan later met with board members in Washington.

What’s important, says board member Bland, is that the board used the incident to establish “the difference between informing a bishop that we’re coming and asking permission. … We don’t need permission.

“Let’s be hopeful that he got the message,” Bland says. “If he didn’t, we’ll do it again.”

McChesney is less publicly confrontational. When visiting bishops, she goes out of her way to praise them in the media – as in Boston in January, when she urged people “to be somewhat patient with the archdiocese” as it implements changes.

The board and McChesney want to show the bishops that they are there to help – even though, as Burke observes, “We are perceived to be the enemy to some extent. We are not a group of people who they wanted to have in the hierarchy of the church.”


Kathleen McChesney, Executive Director
Office of Child and Youth Protection
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 Fourth St. NE
Washington, DC 20017
(202) 541-3000

Restoring Trust: Response to Clergy
Sexual Abuse –
Links to USCCB documents:
Interviews with McChesney and
National Review Board members:

The National Review Board

Frank Keating, chairman – former governor of Oklahoma; president, American Council of Life Insurers

Anne M. Burke, vice chairwoman – judge, Illinois Court of Appeals

Petra J. Maes – judge, New Mexico Supreme Court

Michael Bland – clinical counselor, clinical-pastoral coordinator for victim assistance ministry, Archdiocese of Chicago

Robert S. Bennett – lawyer, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, Washington

William R. Burleigh – former chief executive officer, E.W. Scripps Company, Union, Ky.

Nicholas P. Cafardi – dean, Duquesne University Law School, Pittsburgh

Jane Chiles – former director, Kentucky State Catholic Conference, Lexington, Ky.

Alice Bourke Hayes – president, University of San Diego

Pamela D. Hayes – attorney, New York City

Dr. Paul R. McHugh – director, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

Leon Panetta – former congressman and White House chief of staff; director, Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, Monterey Bay, Calif.

Ray H. Siegfried II – chairman of the board, the NORDAM Group, Tulsa, Okla.


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