Church reform advisers in crosshairs of history

In 2002, The Boston Globe investigation of clergy child abuse ignited widespread media coverage of negligent church officials. As their credibility took a pounding, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops hired R.F. Binder, a Madison Avenue consulting firm specializing in damage control. That June, with Binder’s guidance, the bishops empaneled a National Review Board, 12 blue ribbon Catholics to advise on reform procedures.

Among them, Leon Panetta was former chief of staff for President Clinton; Robert Bennett, a powerhouse Washington lawyer, had defended Clinton in the Paula Jones case; Judge Anne Burke of Chicago would soon became an Illinois Supreme Court Justice; Duquesne Law School Dean Nicholas Cafardi was also a canon lawyer; and Pamela Hayes, the sole African-American, was a former prosecutor and New York defense attorney.

Devout Catholics, successful, willing to “give back” and help the church in its agony, they didn’t know the fix was in.

After extensive travel for interviews with bishops, priests, victims, canon lawyers, therapists, and researchers on the crisis (this writer included), the board released its report in March 2004, criticizing church secrecy, calling for heightened discipline in seminaries and zero-tolerance of offending priests. Without subpoena power to obtain church files, they relied on the candor of church officials, and recommended “fraternal correction” among bishops.

On release of the report, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the USCCB chair, announced to reporters, “The scandal is history” — a headline of hope after two years of worsening news. On “Meet the Press,” Bennett told Tim Russert that lax seminary standards in years past had produced psychosexually immature clerics who abused the young. Russert’s other guest was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who, we now know, had been reported to the Vatican in 2000 for coercing sex with seminarians years earlier.

“The lack of seminary supervision, the lack of seminary screening in those days is true,” said McCarrick, with no hint of black irony. “Perhaps we didn’t know at that time exactly how you had to screen, how you had to test. Now, we do.”

And now, says Justice Burke, she and her former NRB colleagues want to know who know what, and when, about McCarrick, who recently resigned as a cardinal after the news that the church paid legal settlements to several of his victims.

On the phone from Springfield, Ill., Burke said: “Where are we today? At the same place. We know what we suspected then, but it’s now affirmed: we cannot trust the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.”

Burke is careful not to lay fault on Pope Francis, despite former papal ambassador to Washington, D.C., Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s explosive letter, accusing the pope of complicity in letting McCarrick continue in public ministry. Saint John Paul II, however, made McCarrick a cardinal. How much did John Paul know?

Viganò’s credibility has taken hard hits by journalists, who have found mistakes in his 11-page j’accuse, and a transparent alliance with ultra-conservatives hostile to Francis and human beings who are gay. But the pope has done himself a disservice by keeping silent about McCarrick.

Burke wants something else. In an Aug. 31 letter to Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, she asked that the church reappoint the original NRB members to an “Independent Inquiry Board” for a new investigation. Referring to the bishops’ 2002 youth-protection charter, which promised zero tolerance, she wrote that its “basic flaw. . . has always exempted the bishops” from independent oversight.

“The fundamental need,” she writes, “is to answer the question as to how Archbishop McCarrick and others rose in their ecclesiastical careers when troubling facts regarding sexual abuse were known by the hierarchy which promoted them.”

DiNardo, in Rome for a scheduled meeting with Pope Francis on Thursday, was trailed by an AP report that he failed to act on allegations, from two people, that Father Manuel LaRosa-Lopez fondled them; the priest was arrested Tuesday in Conroe, Texas.

In 2003, Burke, Bennett, and another board member, William Burleigh, flew to Rome to meet with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and his canon law investigator, Msgr. Charles Scicluna. Ratzinger had consolidated power in the CDF to review files of accused priests for defrocking them. In 2005 he became Pope Benedict.

“We asked how many trials have you done on the accused priests,” says Burke. “Scicluna said he was getting empty files from bishops. They didn’t want to release information to the Holy See because they feared subpoena power [from lawyers representing victims.] Bob [Bennett] told Scicluna to tell them to send the files, they’ll get a subpoena anyway.”

Fourteen years later, a mountain of documents has built up from litigation. Scicluna, now an archbishop, conducted the investigation of bishops in Chile that led the national hierarchy to tender resignations, which Francis is selectively going through. In her letter, Burke asks for Scicluna “to consult with us and serve as our liaison with the Holy See.”

Imagine that.

Jason Berry has published three books on the Catholic Church sexual-abuse crisis, and is author of “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300,” forthcoming in November.