By John Bookser Feister
Wednesday, June 12, 2002, was a day for U.S. bishops to prepare for their upcoming two-day assembly and to begin to shape their message to the U.S. media.
Indeed, media attendance was more on the scale of a papal visit than a typical U.S. bishops' meeting. At noon a communications officer told AmericanCatholic.org that 775 members of the media had been credentialed, as compared to the usual 50 or so.
Knowing that the world is watching, the bishops are taking great care to prepare the media. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) President Wilton D. Gregory held a briefing session for media in the afternoon attended by the throng of media. In his opening talk, he said that this type of meeting was "unprecedented in our history: for the first time, bishops of the Church are meeting to vote on a nationwide mandatory policy to address the issue of the sexual abuse of children." He went on to explain what would be happening on the following two days: the assembly of about 400 bishops would debate and vote on the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" (see opening page of this section).
Responding to questions for about 45 minutes, Bishop Gregory shared many of his own views about the crisis but was loathe to predict what specific actions the body of bishops would take. Noting that the bishops are "notorious wordsmiths," he hinted to the media there could well be debate over fine points in the document.
One reporter, David Bloom of NBC News, commented to Bishop Gregory that many of victims claim that the bishops have promised strong action in the past and have not delivered. What would be different this time, Bloom asked. "First of all, I would have to agree with them," responded Gregory. "Not enough has been done. There has not been a consistent implementation of the recommendations that we arrived at even 10 years ago." What's different now, he said, is that this meeting will result in a national protocol that will be "not only obligatory, but it will be public. It will be monitored by a national review board."
In a late-evening briefing on some of the fine points of canon law, Archbishop John J. Myers (Newark, N.J.) clarified this proposal. He indicated that the bishops' committee on sexual abuse will be recommending to the body a new department at the bishops' conference that will conduct an annual audit of each diocese's compliance with the new regulations.
Bishops' accountability was a recurrent theme in the questions of the
media to bishops. In the early evening the sexual abuse committee had
met with members of various victims' groups who are here in force. By
all accounts, it was a moving experience. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick
(Washington, D.C.) said it was the first time he had met with sexual
abuse survivors as a group. It was the first such meeting of a body
of bishops with victims in 10 years.
John Bookser Feister is editor of AmericanCatholic.org and an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine whose 1994 article on clergy sexual abuse was awarded best general-interest magazine article that year by the Catholic Press Association. He holds masters' degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University.