Abuse watchdogs say bishops’ ‘failings’ hurt their credibility

n as an annual review this week gave Catholic bishops high marks on sex abuse prevention policies, officials with the church's oversight agencies expressed serious concerns about “recent high-profile failings” in several dioceses.

(RNS) Even as an annual review this week gave Catholic bishops high marks on sex abuse prevention policies, officials with the church’s oversight agencies expressed serious concerns about “recent high-profile failings” in several dioceses.

The latest scandal has shaken Newark, N.J., where Archbishop John Myers failed to stop a priest from ministering with children in several parishes even though he had assured prosecutors that he would enforce a lifetime ban on the priest’s access to children following a molestation case.

Newark Archbishop John J. Myers is facing fierce criticism for his handling of a priest who attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors in defiance of a court-ordered lifetime ban on ministry to children. Religion News Service photo by Ed Murray/The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Newark Archbishop John J. Myers is facing fierce criticism for his handling of a priest who attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors in defiance of a court-ordered lifetime ban on ministry to children. Religion News Service photo by Ed Murray/The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

Myers initially defended his oversight of the Rev. Michael Fugee, but under increasing pressure he reversed himself; Fugee then resigned from ministry, but ongoing calls for Myers to step down have generated new headlines almost every day.

“I’ll be honest with you, Newark is disheartening,” said Bernie Nojadera, head of the Office of Child and Youth Protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It is like taking steps backwards.”

Nojadera, along with Al J. Notzon, III, head of a blue-ribbon review board of lay leaders that checks the bishops’ compliance with their policies, on Thursday (May 9) released an annual audit that found that in 2012 the number of allegations, victims and offenders continued to decline from previous years.

In addition, the review found that almost all of the nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the U.S. were in compliance with the policies set out in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which the bishops adopted in 2002 at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

At the same time, in accompanying letters to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, both Notzon and Nojadera noted that there has been “much disturbing news in the media” and “recent high-profile failings” that have undermined the bishops’ efforts.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles stands outside St. Joseph's Church in New York following an ecumenical prayer service presided over by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles stands outside St. Joseph’s Church in New York following an ecumenical prayer service presided over by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. Photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

In separate interviews, both Nojadera and Notzon said they were referring to several specific cases:

Nojadera also pointed to the news in February that Fugee had been appointed to a high-profile administrative job in the Newark archdiocese, and that was before the latest bombshell over Fugee’s unauthorized work with children.

Notzon said the recent lapses underscore how important it is for the bishops to be vigilant – and accountable – because even one failure to uphold the charter can undermine the credibility that the review board has worked for a decade to restore.

In meetings over the past year, he said, he’s been pushing the bishops to find a way to call out a fellow churchman who violates the charter.

The review board itself has no authority to discipline bishops – only the pope can do that – and the bishops have adopted only a vague policy of “fraternal correction.” The provision has no enforcement mechanism and in any case the bishops rarely if ever rebuke their colleagues, even in private.

Notzon said he and the review board are formulating specific recommendations to increase accountability among the bishops, and at a meeting next month will press them to “translate what we have found into action.”

“I have no hesitancy in communicating … that this is a concern that has to be addressed and continues to be addressed,” Notzon said.

Support for enforcement

What’s new is that he and Nojadera may now have some high-level allies in their corner.

sean o'malley

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley celebrates Sunday Mass with other American Cardinals and Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P. at the Pontifical North American College March 3, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot.

Speaking in Rome before the papal election in March, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley – the American prelate with perhaps the greatest credibility on the abuse issue – said that whoever was elected pope would need to develop a clear and consistent policy for dealing with bishops whose “malfeasance” allowed abusive priests to stay in ministry.

“Right now, it’s not terribly clear, but it’s something the next pope will have to deal with,” O’Malley told the Boston Globe. “My point is always that if you don’t have policies, you’ll be improvising, and when you improvise, you make a lot of mistakes.”

A week later, O’Malley and the other cardinals elected Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis, and the new pope also indicated that addressing the abuse crisis would be a priority – something the review board and most Catholics would welcome.

“We are looking forward with great anticipation to hearing and seeing about the specifics on that from the Holy See – what he (Francis) will be talking about or hoping to put in place, if indeed that is to be a priority,” Nojadera said.

The annual compliance audit that was released Thursday is mainly a parish-level view of how the charter is being implemented, and it did not specifically address the recent incidents involving bishops.

But while the audit showed widespread compliance with the prevention policies – as well as declining numbers of allegations of abuse – it also pointed to a number of dioceses that were either ignoring the charter or were not allowing on-site inspections.