by Nancy Wiechec
Most people would
run from a job offer to clean house for the U.S. bishops in the midst of the
current crisis. Not Kathleen McChesney. She left a prestigious F.B.I. position
last December to head the U.S. bishops' new Office of Child and Youth Protection.
Now she relishes the opportunity to bring her deep experience in law enforcement
and management to the service of her Church. When she left the Bureau, at 51,
this lifelong Catholic had established herself as one of the most distinguished
women in law enforcement.
In mid-January, at the U.S. bishops' conference headquarters in
Washington, D.C., she stopped for an interview with St. Anthony Messenger.
We talked about her career, the challenges of her new job and the road ahead.
Her assignment is to help ensure that every U.S. diocese complies with the new
U.S.-Vatican requirements on youth protection.
A native of greater Seattle, Kathleen Louise McChesney grew
up in Holy Family Parish, Auburn, one of two children in a family of Irish-Italian
heritage. A 31-year law enforcement career was capped by her 2001 appointment
as the third-ranking official in the F.B.I. The division she headed coordinates
F.B.I. work with the nation's 18,000 police agencies, as well as directs the
work of the F.B.I. in 44 countries. She was honored last May by the National
Center for Women and Policing with a Lifetime Achievement Award. She retired
from her F.B.I. post to respond to the bishops' need.
Kathleen McChesney's career began in the 1970s near her childhood
home, where she served for seven years as a police officer and detective in
King County, Washington. She wanted to be an F.B.I. agent, but the Bureau wasn't
accepting women candidates at the time of her 1971 graduation from Washington
State University. She had earned a bachelor's degree in police science/administration
in only three years, the first two at Gonzaga University.
She started police work at the bottom, fingerprinting and photographing
suspects brought in under arrest. "It definitely wasn't a glamorous job, but
it was considered a necessary job," she told one interviewer, "and it was my
way to get a foot in the door of a good organization." She received a master's
in public administration from Jesuit-run Seattle University in 1976. She also
taught law-enforcement classes at Seattle University and King County Police
Academy during those years.
During her Seattle tenure the F.B.I. opened its doors to women agents.
In 1978 McChesney became a special agent for the F.B.I., assigned to the San
Francisco office. Her foot was in the door again, and she rose through the ranks.
In 1983 she was transferred to F.B.I. headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the
Undercover and Special Operations Unit.
In succeeding years she served in various management capacities in several
cities, including directing the F.B.I. field offices in Portland,
Oregon, and in Chicago, the nation's largest. In 1987 this ambitious
civil servant earned her Ph.D. in public administration from Golden
Gate University in San Francisco. Don't call this self-effacing
woman "Dr. McChesney," though—"Most people don't," she says, "except
in a room of other doctors—they like to do that."
Her soft-spoken manner belies a no-nonsense investigator, described
by her former top aide in Chicago, Agent Walter Stowe, as "absolutely fearless,"
according to Associated Press (AP) at the time of her Church appointment. Others
told the AP of her "well-sharpened people skills."
Her work in the field offices often dealt with investigating and
stopping official corruption. Two recent high-profile cases from Chicago illustrate
the point. One was a multistate jewelry-theft ring that targeted traveling jewelry
sales representatives. A former Chicago police chief of detectives led the ring,
racking up nearly $5 million in thefts over two decades. At the news conference
announcing the arrests early in 2001, McChesney said, "The public expects aggressive
enforcement of the law by its police officials, not collusion with criminals."
In Cicero, Illinois, of Al Capone fame, the town's president and
nine others were charged in June 2001 with bilking taxpayers out of $10 million
to finance a horse farm and golf course. "The Cicero candy store is closed,"
McChesney matter-of-factly told reporters.
Early in 2001 she was appointed assistant director of the F.B.I.'s
training division. After September 11, 2001, as the Bureau began reorganizing
to streamline itself and combat terrorism more effectively, she was named executive
assistant director for law enforcement services, leading one of the F.B.I.'s
She stood out among about 40 candidates who were considered for
the post at the bishops' conference, according to USCCB General Secretary Msgr.
William P. Fay. McChesney says she was recruited by a member of the new National
Review Board, but gently declines offering further details. (This 13-member
board of prominent Catholic laity is helping the bishops implement new youth-protection
She told reporters last November that she didn't hesitate for a
moment when asked to apply. She, like most Catholics, is distressed by the scandal
in the Church. She knew that the bishops meant business if they were willing
to bring her on board.
McChesney's modest office still shows signs of unpacking during
our mid-January interview: near-empty bookshelves, two small art pieces—sent
by friends and supporters—sitting on a table awaiting a more permanent home.
Today she wears a business suit, her lapel adorned with a U.S. flag brooch.
Her program, the newly created Office of Child and Youth Protection,
exists to make sure that last year's work of the bishops' conference and the
Vatican-U.S. Mixed Commission takes root in every U.S. diocese (or eparchy,
in the case of Eastern Catholics).
That work was reflected in two documents finally ratified for a
two-year trial period when the bishops met last November: the Charter for
the Protection of Children and Young People and the accompanying norms for
dioceses and eparchies. The first is the broad program of youth protection the
bishops agreed to; the second is related canon law applying to priests and deacons.
When asked if the complexity of these documents, which caused more
than a little confusion throughout 2002, fazes her, a newcomer to Church administration,
she quickly says no. "I worked for the government," she adds with a laugh.
Her office serves multiple purposes, she explains, stemming from
the bishops' Charter. One of its main responsibilities is to help the
dioceses establish standards and develop or locate abuse-prevention programs
suited for the local situation. (She refers to these as "safe-environment programs.")
She gives advice to diocesan staffers in person or by phone daily. Many dioceses
already have these safe-environment programs in place now, she adds.
"The second part of the job is to conduct an audit of the efforts
dioceses have made to implement the provisions of the Charter and the
norms." Actually, the audit will be a compilation of 194 smaller audits, one
for each diocese and eparchy in the United States. She'll monitor and coordinate
the individual audits, and write a final report by December.
First, though, by June, her office plans to complete a survey of
the scope and nature of the problem, including information on the number of
clergy accused of abuse, number and ages of victims, and costs of financial
Her third major assignment is to commission an academic study on
the context and causes of child abuse in a Church setting.
McChesney carries out many of her responsibilities in conjunction
with the National Review Board. Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating leads
these influential lay volunteers recruited by USCCB President Bishop Wilton
D. Gregory last year to help navigate Church leadership out of the crisis brought
on by mishandling of sex-abuse cases.
"It's both a monitoring and a supporting type of relationship,"
McChesney says. "They monitor and review what's done here, and they support
our various initiatives. Similarly, I support them with their task." That includes
handling logistics and other administrative work for the Board, she explains.
"It's a daily interaction between myself and members of the Board. It's also
a daily interaction between myself and various bishops around the country."
In these early months of 2003 her office is treading where no office
of the conference has gone before—coming into individual dioceses to review
records and audit a national policy. "It's going as I expected," she says. The
people with whom she's working "are very supportive of this program. This is
a phenomenal initiative for the Church."
It hasn't been a flawless start, however. In late January there
was a flap in the Archdiocese of New York, when Cardinal Edward Egan objected
to plans for some members of the National Review Board to join fellow members
at a Knights of Malta fund-raiser, and when his staff caused McChesney to cancel
a parish speaking engagement. After a backlash of negative publicity, Cardinal
Egan later pledged his full cooperation with the National Review Board. McChesney
and St. Ignatius Loyola Parish rescheduled her talk. Frankly, bishops aren't
accustomed to this type of thing.
A Day in the Life
Though we caught her in the office, McChesney is as likely
to be on the road visiting dioceses. "I travel every week somewhere. It's excellent
for me to actually see what's going on." She observes that sex-abuse cases occur
and are handled locally in the dioceses. "It's important for the dioceses to
know me and what type of support my office can provide. The interaction has
been very good."
When she goes to a diocese, she typically speaks to a parish or
other group, meets with the bishop, meets perhaps with the diocese's victim
advocate or lay review board member, or others involved in handling the local
Based on the strong commitments from the bishops' assemblies both
in Dallas last spring and in Washington, D.C., last fall, she predicts good
cooperation. "I don't expect resistance in any diocese," she says. "The process
that I'm implementing is not one I developed; it's one the bishops developed.
That's a key distinction for me." She admits that some bishops may like it less
than others. "You'd have to ask them," she adroitly offers. "They all understand
that this is the Church's particular law for the United States and they know
what that means."
Scope of the Problem
One question on almost everyone's mind when the Church sex-abuse
topic comes up is, just how widespread is the problem? Several media
organizations have jumped in with widely varying reports about how many known
abusers have been dealt with by dioceses. The survey that McChesney's office
is conducting this year will provide an authoritative number.
The most recent and most extensive media survey, conducted by The
New York Times and reported in January, gave a diocese-by-diocese breakdown
of reported cases of clergy sexual abuse. That survey found reports of abuse
in just over 90 percent of dioceses, involving 1,205 priests (some resigned
or deceased) and 4,000 victims over the past 60 years. Most of the abuse reported
to date occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. Accusations dropped sharply after
that, according to the survey.
McChesney had seen only the news summaries of the days-old study
at the time of our interview, but they seemed to jibe with what her office has
been finding in the initial stages of its survey, "particularly that a number
of the cases that are being reported occurred in the far past. That doesn't
negate their heinous nature by any means," she cautions, "but that helps when
you try to determine what things need to be done so far as safe-environment
programs, training and education."
Understanding as much as possible about what happened is a key to
finding the right solution, she says.
She cautions, though, that the Times study could not conclude
why there was a drop in reports after the 1980s. It could be, as the Times
reported, that there might be younger victims who have yet to report abuse.
"One of the things we try to do through our educational process is to ask people
to come forward as soon as they can," says McChesney.
That's necessary in the criminal-justice system, she explains, to
meet the statute of limitations. "The civil authorities have recognized that
the sooner things are reported, then the fairer it is to both the victim and
the alleged perpetrator."
Is education, then, the key to resolving the crisis? It's part of
it, she says, but stresses that "healthy living" is a key, too. By that she
means that young people grow up in safe environments, that parents know what
their children are doing, that children are able to communicate with their parents
Pace of Progress
McChesney agrees that the Church is still in the crisis stage,
well over a year after the Boston scandal began to make headlines. How long
will the crisis continue? "It's hard to predict," she says. "The sad fact is
that there are still cases that need to be dealt with."
She repeats her request that people come forward as soon as they
can with any case, past or present. "The old cases do need to be dealt with,
wherever victims are willing to come forward," she insists. In spite of the
pain that the Church has undergone hearing so many awful stories, she says,
"I think everyone is ready to hear more. The norms and the Charter provide
direction on how to deal with it."
Known as goal-oriented, McChesney is confident that the diocesan
survey will be complete by June and the audits by December. By the end of her
first year, the academic study will be well under way, due for completion in
2004. Much of the coming months will be devoted to communication and training.
"Those are key pieces: to let people know what we're doing and train people
in the ways they will be part of the solution."
Some critics might suggest that having an internal group conduct
audits and monitor enforcement is like having the fox guard the henhouse. McChesney
responds, "Every organization should have an ongoing process of reviewing the
adherence of its members to its policies."
The 194 diocesan/eparchal audits will be done by outside contractors,
and the causes study will be conducted by credible outside academics, she adds.
The National Review Board will make the results of the studies public, she explains,
no matter what the findings are. They are bound by the Charter to do
The study's findings will be helpful beyond Church leadership, she
thinks: "Because of the breadth of the study, it will be helpful to the criminal-justice
community, the psychiatric community, the academic community and parishioners,
too. Lots of people will be interested in the results."
McChesney says she hopes the work of her office and that of the
National Review Board will resolve the clergy sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic
Church in the United States. "It won't be the solution to child abuse—that's
going to happen in society. But we can certainly reduce the possibility of it
happening within the Church. We'll have better-educated laity—adults and children.
The Church can then refocus on the various ministries that it does so well."
Only a woman of faith could tackle such a daunting job. But
Kathleen McChesney's is a quiet faith, a faith driven perhaps by duty and loyalty,
by commitment to God and the people around her without making a show of it.
When asked what feeds her faith, she quickly shifts focus to those who have
Over the years it was her parents, the people in her parish, teachers
and so on, but no one person stands out for this lifelong single woman. "A person's
faith provides you with strength, optimism and caring. What struck me as a law-enforcement
person was to see the faith of others, to see how crime victims get through
things and how it helped some individuals to recognize their criminal activities
and try to do better."
She feels strongly that young people need to have an experience
of faith. "What's compelling about this position here [at the USCCB] is to be
able to make parents feel confident so that they will bring their children to
church and be exposed to the Faith."
When asked if the sex-abuse crisis shook her faith, as it may have
shaken others', she comments, "I hope it's not their faith. I don't think faith
and belief are the issue here. People who have faith know that some people
do some awful, evil things—this isn't heaven! As intelligent, rational people,
our obligation, because of our faith, is to try and fix those things, to make
things right. It's a blessing to be able to do so."
Over the years some people have accused McChesney of overworking,
which she denies with a laugh. She plays golf, for example, but not very well,
she confesses. She's a jogger, too. "I've counseled many employees under my
supervision over the years to find balance between work and the rest of their
lives." The most balanced ones are the most productive, she adds.
One might think she would be under a lot of work stress, given the
weight of her task, but she recalls her F.B.I. work fighting thieves, hijackers,
terrorists and the like: "This is a demanding and busy job—there's more work
than hours in the day—but it's not the exigency of law enforcement."
Leadership for Tomorrow
Kathleen McChesney has emerged in 2003, a bit by surprise, as
an influential woman in the Catholic Church in the United States.
But she doesn't see her work in those terms. "I'm part of the process,"
she says. She reminds us of where the buck stops: "The leadership
in the Church on this issue is the bishops and priests, in showing
their commitment to addressing the problem."
Of course, the clergy are working closely with laity, but "the
fact that the bishops developed the Charter and norms and
said, 'Tell the world how we're doing,' is the significant leadership
Good leaders don't do everything, this accomplished executive observes:
They involve lots of people to get things done. "The blessing here is that a
lot of the people involved in this process are so strongly committed to fixing
the problem." With Kathleen McChesney's skill and resolve, one gets a sense
that the bishops might well be on the right track.