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Wuerl named to new panel to oversee sex abuse charter

Thursday, October 03, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a move intended to show that they will address their own failures to remove priests who sexually abuse minors, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has created a committee to hold bishops accountable and has appointed Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh as one of its five members.

"Our purpose is to suggest ways in which bishops can hold ourselves and each other responsible to implement the spirit and the letter of the charter," Wuerl said. The charter declares that no priest who sexually abused a minor can remain in ministry, wear a collar or call himself "Father."

The goal is "quietly ensuring that everyone is, in fact, applying the charter," Wuerl said. He said the committee would not address problems that occurred prior to June 14, the date the bishops adopted the charter

The committee will work with bishops "on the level of fraternal support and fraternal encouragement because, canonically and legally, we can't get involved in other dioceses," Wuerl said.

Wuerl's obvious credential for this job was his 1993 refusal to comply when the Vatican's highest court ordered him to reinstate an accused child molester whom he had banned from ministry in 1988. Wuerl won a reversal two years later.

In interviews this year, Wuerl criticized bishops who failed to remove abusers, saying they had abdicated their pastoral responsibilities.

Tim Bendig, one of the accusers in the 1993 Vatican court case, said he was doubtful of what the committee could accomplish, but said Wuerl's participation would be a strength.

"Because of his outspokenness, he will definitely do the best job he can for both the good of the church and the good of the victims," he said.

Nicholas Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University's law school and a member of the bishops' national lay review committee on sexual abuse, also praised Wuerl's selection.

"If there are any heroes in this mess, he certainly is one," Cafardi said. "From day one as bishop, he has refused to assign to ministry any priests who have a record of abusing children."

Cafardi said the new bishops committee would be helpful to the lay committee, which is supposed to identify dioceses that fail to comply with the charter. "The best people to talk to bishops who might be thinking about not following the Dallas charter will be their fellow bishops," he said.

The chairman of the accountability committee is Bishop Robert Brom of San Diego. The other members are Cardinal Robert George of Chicago, Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco and Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn.

Levada is one of the few archbishops who has taken control of another diocese due to a sex scandal that involved its bishop. George is the U.S. cardinal credited with carrying the most clout in Rome. Kinney was the first chairman of the bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse in the early 1990s. Victims groups have accused him of being ineffectual in that post.

Brom's selection to the committee raised some eyebrows.

The Boston Globe reported in March that in the mid-1990s a payment was made to a former seminarian who had accused Brom of sexually exploiting him a decade earlier, when Brom was bishop of Duluth, Minn.

At the time of the payment, which church officials said was a "charitable" attempt to help a troubled man, the former seminarian formally retracted.

Jason Berry, the journalist who first exposed the national priest abuse scandal in 1985, said he was troubled that the bishops would appoint someone with even a hint of an accusation in his past.

"I'm not saying Brom is guilty, I just don't know why they would put someone who has been under a cloud in a position like this. ... Maybe they wanted to send a signal that this is a guy who has weathered a storm," Berry said.

Wuerl said he could not imagine that any bishop would refuse to carry out the charter. The national lay review board has already said that it will publicize the dioceses that fail to comply, he said.

"If there were such a case -- and I would pray to God there wouldn't be -- then it would be public and we would have to wait and see what ecclesiastical authorities would take action," Wuerl said.

And the only ecclesisastical authorities that can take disciplinary action are in Rome.

However, the power of bishops to persuade other bishops to do the right thing should not be underestimated, said Sister Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer from Silver Spring, Md., who served for several years as canonical counsel for the U.S. bishops. If a bishop still won't comply the archbishop in his region would have the responsibility of informing Rome of the problem, she said.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who edits the conservative journal First Things, has criticized the bishops for shifting all the blame for the scandal to priests.

"I expect this is a good faith effort" to address the failures within their ranks, Neuhaus said.

"A question that goes back three and more decades is the degree to which the bishops conference and its committees can hold bishops accountable. This is obviously an experiment in that direction and we'll have to see how it works out," he said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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