When the U.S. bishops meet in Dallas from June 13 to 15 to develop a national policy on clergy sexual abuse of minors, there will be “direct participation by some who have been directly harmed by a cleric,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He added that plans for a national day of reconciliation in the U.S. church will need to involve much more than “say three Hail Marys and go and sin no more. This moment is too profound for that kind of glib response. First the bishops have to ask forgiveness of those who have been harmed.”
When asked what can be expected from the June meeting, Bishop Gregory said: “The absolutely essential dimension of Dallas must be that the bishops must make absolutely clear that children will never be placed in harm’s way. That is the sine qua non.” Elaborating, he said, “People who harm children are sick.... It’s a crime and it’s sinful.... We can’t stop sin—but we can make sure we will never intentionally place children in harm’s way.”
He said the five guiding principles the bishops established in 1992 for diocesan policy and practice in response to sexual abuse allegations “remain very sound, and most dioceses have put them into practice.” The difference after a national policy is established in Dallas, he said, will be that “it’s no longer an option of the individual bishop to decide what’s to be done.”
When asked about the impact of the crisis on the church’s ability to influence public policy, he acknowledged that it is a significant concern. “The issue at hand is the credibility of the bishops of the United States—and the credibility of the Catholic Church as a universal community,” he said. While the bishops work to rebuild credibility, he said, “there are forces that would like to see our voice silenced. There are people who would love nothing more than to reduce the Catholic Church to a silent group of compromised people.” He said lay involvement will be a crucial aspect of rebuilding trust and credibility. “We won’t be able to get out of this without the help of the laity—we may have gotten into it without the laity, but we won’t get out without the assistance of the laity,” he said.Media Watchdogs Analyze Handling of Clergy Abuse Story
Secular media watchdogs—including one tracking the story for the prestigious Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. —disagree as to how long the church crisis will stay in the headlines and just how it became this year’s big news story in the first place. “I don’t see a scenario where this would come to a close any time soon,” said Bill Mitchell, a former Time magazine bureau chief who is now online editor and marketing director for Poynter. A nonprofit school for journalists that derives its revenue from its ownership of The St. Petersburg Times, Poynter has created an online directory tracking the clergy abuse story as it appears in newspapers and magazines across the nation.
In addition to offering three days’ worth of current stories on the crisis, the Web site (www.poynter.org/clergyabuse/ca.htm) offers a complete archive of stories, interviews with the reporters, tip sheets on doing fair and professional writing on the story, and online forums where readers and journalists can share their views.
But how did a story, which has been around for decades now, escalate to its current fever pitch? There are several reasons. Poynter’s Mitchell pointed to The Boston Globe’s success this year in acquiring damning court documents in the case of a former priest-pedophile in the Archdiocese of Boston, John Geoghan. “The dimension carrying the story forward is not the abuse that happened 20 and 30 years ago but the handling of it then and now,” Mitchell said in an interview with The Florida Catholic newspaper. “It raises questions of leadership that remain very relevant day to day.” He does not view the current reporting as having an anti-Catholic bias, calling the coverage “aggressive, but not inappropriately so.”
Debra Mason, executive director of the 250-member Religion Newswriters Association, said recently that religion writers across the country often have been trumped by seasoned reporters wanting a piece of the story of the year. “The stars at a newspaper want to jump on the big stories,” she said. “Quite honestly, some of these folks don’t give a hoot about religion unless it’s a hot, sexy story.’’ Mason told The Florida Catholic that most religion writers at secular newspapers agree this is the biggest story they have ever covered—even bigger than the spiritual dimensions following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
Most reporters working the story are themselves exhausted by it all, according to Mason, who speculated that interest in the story may diminish significantly following the June meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas.
Mason also said the fact that “eminent leaders” in the Catholic Church in America have been directly involved in the story has helped boost the crisis to page-one level day after day. “There is always a wild interest in religion when it involves what is perceived as hypocrisy or failing to live up to the larger purpose behind the church,” she said.
As to coverage of the story overall—including the recent meeting between U.S. cardinals and the Vatican—Mason said those reporters with little or no experience in covering religion are the ones offering wild opinions and unrealistic criticism of church response to the crisis. “People who have observed the Vatican and have covered it knew they weren’t going to resolve this in a landmark law handed down, in effect, that minute,” she said.
Like the science beat, religion is a discipline with highly technical language and terminology that can lead to errors by careless reporters, Mason said. “Often, religion reporters are at the mercy of their sources with no public records; it is a source-driven beat that requires you to develop relationships over a long period of time.” The long-term relationships help build in an extra level of care to make sure that what journalists are reporting is accurate and correct—something that benefits both news outlets and the church, Mason said.
Mitchell said he sees it as “basically a healthy thing for the church to be receiving both coverage and commentary” on the crisis. “It clearly is an important force in society to be scrutinized like any other organization,” he said.Vatican, Sued by 5 States, Denies Insurance Scam Involvement
In response to news that the insurance commissioners of five U.S. states were suing it, the Vatican denied all involvement in the fraud scheme run by Martin Frankel, a financier who is now in jail. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the Vatican had given “the information it had to the attorney general of the state of Mississippi.” The insurance commissioners of Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas filed a lawsuit in federal court on May 9 accusing the Vatican and Msgr. Emilio Colagiovanni of racketeering and fraud. The lawsuit claims that Frankel—currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of racketeering, fraud and conspiracy for bilking more than $200 million from insurance companies—was aided by Msgr. Colagiovanni and by the Holy See in purchasing the companies. Frankel’s lawyer said on May 15 that he would plead guilty to racketeering, conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud.
The suits against Msgr. Colagiovanni and the Vatican claim they helped Frankel purchase companies through charitable foundations and with the help of a letter claiming the Vatican had given funding to Frankel’s St. Francis of Assisi Foundation. Monsignor Colagiovanni admitted in 1999 that he signed the letter, although he knew it was not true, because Frankel had told him he wanted to donate millions of dollars to Catholic charities anonymously through the foundation.
Frankel also allegedly tried to use the Vatican bank account of the Monitor Ecclesiasticus Foundation, a foundation of which Monsignor Colagiovanni was president. The foundation publishes a canon law journal. Navarro-Valls said on May 15 that Monitor Ecclesiasticus, established in the Archdiocese of Naples in 1967, “is in no way a Vatican foundation; neither is the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation,” about which the Vatican has no information.
At the time of the alleged fraud, the spokesman said, Monsignor Colagiovanni “was a retired priest who no longer exercised any role within the Holy See. In the affair he acted as a private Italian citizen. The Holy See never received nor gave any money to either foundation.”Clergy Sex Abuse Victims Ask Bishops to Back Law Changes
In more than 20 cities, victims of sex abuse by priests held news conferences and demonstrations to ask their local bishop to back tougher laws against sexual abuse of minors. The local actions on May 9, in 19 U.S. and two Canadian cities, were coordinated by SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. They proposed the following for all U.S. states and Canadian provinces: civil and criminal statutes of limitations should be eliminated or extended for the sexual abuse of minors; all clergy should be made mandated reporters for suspected child abuse; and all dioceses should immediately “stop taking advantage of legal technicalities—such as statutes of limitations—to avoid being held accountable for abusive clergy.”News Briefs
The national director of World Youth Day 2002 said he hopes for 350,000 registered delegates for the gathering in Toronto from July 23 to 28. This is down from the initial projection of 750,000 participants.
Instead of being at odds with many Vatican positions, as in the Clinton years, the U.S. delegation emerged at the U.N. General Assembly’s Special Session on Children as an ally on such especially contentious issues as abortion and the family, reports Msgr. Anthony R. Frontiero, a priest of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., who has served since 1999 at the Vatican’s U.N. Mission in New York.
At least 700,000 people are slaves today, according to U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, the prime mover behind a conference in Rome on May 15-16 on “21st-Century Slavery: The Human Rights Dimension to Trafficking in Human Beings.”