Who Are Key Bishops Drafting Sexual Abuse Policy?
Priest and Author Reese Points to Key Participants in the Debate

audio icon Listen to Duncan Moon's June 14 report.

Bishop Wilton Gregory

Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, Bishop of Belleville and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, attends a June 12 opening press conference in Dallas, Texas.
Photo: Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

Rev. Harry J. Flynn (left)

Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn (left) and Barbara Blaine (center) with Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) listen to Father Gary Hayes (right) during a news conference following a committee meeting on priest sex abuse in Dallas, Texas, on June 12.
Photo: Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

"The church is going to have to have somebody who has instant credibility going into Boston, who doesn't have to prove himself. And both of these bishops (Flynn and Gregory) are people who have a track record cleaning up dioceses, which is what Boston would need."

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese

Mark Vincent Serrano, who claims to be a child victim of sexual abuse by a priest, shows a picture of Eric Patterson, who Serrano says committed suicide after also being abused by a priest. Serrano and other alleged victims spoke June 13 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas, detailing their experiences.
Photo: Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

Bill Betzen, member of the We Are The Church religious group, sits across the street June 12 from the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, Texas, as U.S. Roman Catholic bishops gathered to begin their conference on priest sex abuse.
Photo: Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited

June 13, 2002 -- As America's 288 Roman Catholic bishops meet in Dallas to debate a new policy on priest sexual abuse, a few of them will play specific and pivotal roles. In an interview with npr.org, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese -- author of books including Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church -- discusses several bishops he expects to figure prominently in the policy debate.

Bishop Wilton Gregory -- As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since November 2001, Gregory is "the official voice of the bishops, so he's going to be the man on the TV during this meeting," says Reese. Gregory is the first African-American to head the bishops' organization; he's also head of the Belleville, Ill., diocese.

Gregory has put the U.S. bishops on record as "committed to re-examining our policies and strengthening and improving them so that there will be no question about our goal of protecting our children." With Gregory, Reese says, "the key thing to remember is that when he went to Belleville, there were maybe 13 priests that had been accused of sexual abuse with minors -- so he's had experience cleaning up a diocese, and he dealt with it very well…. He was very early with an absolute zero tolerance for any kind of abuse of minors."

Despite Gregory's own opinions about how abuse cases should be handled, "he's going to have to manage the Dallas meeting in an even-handed way," Reese says. "But behind the scenes, he certainly is going to be making known his views."

Archbishop Harry Flynn -- Head of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese since 1995, Flynn chaired the committee that drafted the sexual abuse policy charter the bishops are now debating. Before coming to the Twin Cities, Flynn was bishop of Lafayette, La., where in the late 1980s he was tasked with "cleaning up after the first big, high-profile case" of priest sexual abuse of minors, Reese says. Consequently, says Reese, Flynn "has been dealing with this issue probably longer than any other bishop, so he's had the time to really study this question and understand it thoroughly."

While the draft charter proposes one exemption for offending priests -- allowing a priest with one offense in the past to remain in the priesthood on a restricted basis -- Flynn himself has "taken a tough stand in keeping priests out of ministry if they are any danger," Reese says.

One part of the draft policy that Reese believes "has Flynn's fingerprints on it is the whole process by which there is accountability for enforcing this charter. Flynn has compared it to an annual financial audit of a diocese; specifically, there would be an office in Washington that would be responsible for an annual report on how well bishops in dioceses are actually implementing the charter."

Reese considers Gregory and Flynn two bishops with exceptional standing on the sexual abuse issue. Reese contends that if Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law -- under fire for his handling of sexual abuse cases -- "ever does resign, the two most visible candidates for his job are Flynn and Gregory. The church is going to have to have somebody who has instant credibility going into Boston, who doesn't have to prove himself. And both of these bishops are people who have a track record cleaning up dioceses, which is what Boston would need."

Cardinal Roger Mahony -- The archbishop of Los Angeles since 1985, Mahony "wants to play a major role" in the Dallas policy discussion, Reese says. In the week before the Dallas meeting, Mahony took out ads in Los Angeles newspapers, outlining the archdiocesan abuse policy and promising to urge fellow bishops "to adopt a national policy on sexual abuse as comprehensive as the one in place here: Zero tolerance -- past, present, and future." That policy specifically states that "no priest, deacon, religious or lay person who has ever sexually abused a minor -- no matter where or how long ago the incident might have occurred -- will be allowed to hold any assignment. There will be no exceptions."

Reese says Mahony was "one of the early bishops to say he wanted to get rid of the exemption for one act of abuse" in a priest's past. In May, Mahony publicly apologized for a case in which he reassigned and ordered counseling for a priest who confessed to Mahony that he had sexually abused minors, but then continued the abuse after reassignment.

Cardinal Francis George -- Reese says that George, archbishop of Chicago since 1997, made news by recently saying "that he wanted to have some procedures that would hold bishops accountable who had moved priests around in the past. This is something that the sexual abuse victims' groups are complaining about, that's there nothing in the draft charter that would deal with bishops' actions."

In a letter read to Chicago Catholics at masses last weekend, George said he hopes bishops emerge from the Dallas meeting with "a set of strong and fair policies for effectively dealing with the tragedy of clerical sexual abuse. It is my prayer that what we do there will initiate the processes of restoring trust in your priests and bishops."

Click to search for more stories Browse more NPR stories on the Catholic Church.

View Special Report: Browse NPR coverage and commentary on the church in crisis

Other Resources

View Read the June 4, 2002, draft of the U.S. bishops' policy statement on sexual abuse.