Bishops Ask If Enough Done To Stop Sex Abuse

U.S. Catholic bishops are wrapping up their annual meeting in Atlanta. They vowed to continue fighting the Obama administration over contraceptive health coverage. Plus, ten years after sexual abuse scandals were revealed, the bishops assessed whether they're doing enough to protect children. Host Michel Martin speaks with two religion reporters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we open up our mailbox and hear from you about the stories we've covered this week. That's called BackTalk, and it's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And today, we talk about that big meeting of the American Catholic bishops. They're wrapping up their annual meeting in Atlanta today and they had a lot on their agenda.

The bishops reaffirmed their commitment to take on the Obama administration over contraceptive health coverage, but some are asking if they've crossed the line from principle to partisan and it's been 10 years since revelations of sexual abuse stained the church's reputation, not to mention strained relationships with believers. This week, the bishops assessed whether they are doing enough to protect children in the church.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Dennis Coday. He is the editor of the National Catholic Reporter. He's been covering the meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Also covering the meeting remotely from New York, David Gibson. He covers the Catholic Church for Religion News Service.

Welcome to both of you. Thank you so much for joining us.

DENNIS CODAY: Good to be here.

DAVID GIBSON: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: And I just want to mention that we did make several requests to the bishops directly - to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops - and their communications office said that no one from the conference could join us due to the heavy schedule.

So, that being said, David Gibson, let me start with you. At this meeting, the bishops heard from their national review board. That's the group of laypeople that were appointed to assess the policies that were put in place, you know, in the wake of those terrible, you know, revelations about the sexual abuse of children. Could you just lay out what the board's assessment was? Has progress been made?

GIBSON: The Catholic Church, I think, can justifiably - and the bishops justifiably - be praised for a lot of the reforms they instituted, mandatory background checks in parishes and schools, educating all young kids who are in Catholic environments, setting up review boards in each diocese, auditing, an annual audit of each diocese to see that they comply with this charter, as they call it.

But Al Knutson, the head of the national review board, was pretty strong in telling the bishops, I thought, that, you know, they needed all to comply with the norms or policies of this charter because a number of them have flouted some of these policies. And the bishops, at this point in their history, are going to be judged by their worst performing member and there have been a couple of those, a bishop in Missouri who's awaiting trial for failing to report a suspected abuser, a priest, to authorities. Currently, the trial of Monsignor Lynn in Philadelphia for covering up for abusers for many years.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that now, let me just play a short clip from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York speaking with a journalist from our member station WABE in Atlanta. That's Dennis O'Haire. This is what he's told him.

TIMOTHY DOLAN: We just got to make sure we take every human step possible to make sure that it doesn't happen and that, if it does, there are clear-cut, scrupulous things that must be done by the church.

MARTIN: Dennis, what does that suggest?

CODAY: The two cases that are in the news right now are good examples of where we are with this crisis. You know, the Lynn case in Philadelphia is about cases that are in the past and he was covering them up. Those kind of abuses, we're hoping, are done. And the Lynn case in Philadelphia is kind of the cleanup work that still has to be done.

And there are still more cases out there like that in other places that are - I would imagine are going to come to light here in the next few years.

MARTIN: Do the bishops - do you think that they think they still face a crisis of credibility?

CODAY: I don't think they think that. They point to what they have done and they say, you know, we have done all this. Why do people continue not to trust us? And...

GIBSON: And I think they - I think - if I could jump in, I think, Dennis, you know, for me and for so many people, I think the main problem is that, despite what Cardinal Dolan says, there is no accountability. There is no punishment mechanism for bishops. There's a one strike...

CODAY: Right. Exactly.

GIBSON: ...policy for priests.

CODAY: Exactly.

GIBSON: The reason Monsignor Lynn is on trial in Philadelphia and the reason Bishop Finn is going to go on trial in Missouri is that only civil authorities, if they get a case that's still valid under the statute of limitations, can take any action. The bishops have not, over the last 10 years, despite all of the scandal and bad publicity - have not done anything to discipline themselves or put in any mechanism or any policy to put some teeth into their own policies for themselves.

MARTIN: We're talking about the annual meeting of America's Catholic bishops. They're having their annual meeting in Atlanta. We're hearing from two journalists who've been covering the proceedings, Dennis Coday of National Catholic Reporter, and David Gibson of Religion News Service.

Let's turn now to something that the bishops have been very vocal about, which is the fighting the mandate from the Obama administration that will require many Catholic institutions - probably most, I would say - to include contraceptive coverage in their health care plans.

Dennis Coday, the bishops have been, you know, very vocal about this. They're instituting something called the Fortnight for Freedom, a series of events meant to rally opposition on this issue. How did this come about?

CODAY: After the Obama administration announced the mandate in January, there was a very strong Catholic coalition put together by the bishops, but also other institutions in the church that did not care for the mandate because it had too narrow of a definition of what a religious institution is and they wanted that changed.

And the Fortnight for Freedom is supposed to be a big rallying of the Catholic populace to force the administration to answer some of their questions.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of how this is being viewed, you know, across the kind of very, you know, diverse population of people in this country who are Catholic?

CODAY: The main sticking point for, I think, most Catholics is that it's being built on this contraction mandate and the bishops' insistence that Catholics don't use contraception and I think that's probably a myth that has been exploded. And the bishops saying contraception is the immediate issue, but it's not the platform that we're building this on, but they still cannot get away from that. And that's a major sticking point that they have never, ever gotten around.

MARTIN: This is also taking place against the backdrop of the Vatican's scathing critique of a group of American nuns, saying that they're focusing too much on issues around poverty and are silent on abortion and same-sex marriage issues and, again, you know, we've seen, you know, a lot of discussion among the Catholic laity around this.

So, David Gibson, was this part of - was this discussed at this meeting, you know, as well? And some are sort of drawing the contrast, saying, you know, on the one hand, that this is criticism of the American sisters for focusing too much on poverty and yet making such an issue of this contraceptive issue. And some are saying that there's kind of a disconnect between where the bishops are and where the leadership of the church is and where, actually, the majority of the laity is.

GIBSON: But the bishops do realize they need to get their people behind them. The bishops - there are, you know, 285 bishops. That's not going to do it. There are 65 million Catholics in the United States, 24 percent of the electorate.

Part of this meeting was about trying to pivot the bishops from a decade of playing defense in the sexual abuse scandal to playing a little more offense, you know, of being able to lobby for some of these things, against the contraception mandate, that kind of thing. And in order to do that, they're trying to restore their credibility, rally the faithful.

But you have what - in a really, I think, revealing discussion Thursday morning, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston talked about the debacle of the bishops' communications. He noted that they want to frame the battle against the contraception mandate as a battle for religious freedom. It's been framed as an issue of the bishops against contraception. You've had the Vatican cracking down on the nuns. You've had the Vatican censoring a very well known and well-respected woman nun theologian, Margaret Farley. You've had the bishops even investigating the Girl Scouts, you know, for alleged ties to, perhaps, Planned Parenthood, which are largely mythical, really.

The public and their own people see them as waging their own kind of war on women.

MARTIN: Dennis Coday, I'm going to give you the final thought here. Since you're there, just could you just give us a sense of - what's the atmosphere there, particularly in contrast to previous meetings that you've covered?

CODAY: Just a short anecdote that kind of explains it, you know, they made up these little pins, lapel pins for Fortnight for Freedom, and passed them out to everybody that was there Wednesday at the conference. Some of the bishops were wearing them and a majority were not. That's kind of - symbolizes what's going on, that you know, they want to support this religious liberty issue and yet there's a split within the conference about how best to do that.

MARTIN: Dennis Coday is the editor of the National Catholic Reporter. He's been covering the annual meeting of America's Catholic bishops in Atlanta. He was kind enough to join us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

David Gibson covers the Catholic Church for Religion News Service. He's been watching and covering the meeting remotely on Livestream from New York and he was kind enough to join us from our NPR studios there.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

GIBSON: Thank you.

CODAY: Yeah. Thank you, Michel.

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