Diocese in national spotlight over sex abuse audit

Diocese in national spotlight over sex abuse audit
BOB REEVES / Lincoln Journal Star - Monday, April 24, 2006 - original

Recent change in policy
Lincoln Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz is getting a lot of national attention again because his is the only Roman Catholic diocese in the country that declined to participate in last year’s audit of compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The Diocese of Lincoln and the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., were the only Catholic jurisdictions in the United States that didn’t participate in the annual audit of compliance with guidelines on sex-abuse programs.

In issuing the audit report March 30 for more than 170 dioceses and several eastern rite eparchies, Patricia O’Donnell Ewers, chairwoman of the National Review Board appointed by the bishops, called for “strong fraternal correction” of Bruskewitz and Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Bustros for their refusal to participate.

Bruskewitz issued a statement pointing out that the review board has no authority over bishops.

“The Diocese of Lincoln has nothing to be corrected for, since the Diocese of Lincoln is and has always been in full compliance with all laws of the Catholic Church and with all civil laws,” he said. “Furthermore, Ewers and her board have no authority in the Catholic Church, and the Diocese of Lincoln does not recognize them as having any significance.”

Bruskewitz continued: “It is well known that some of the members of Ewers’ Board are ardent advocates of partial birth abortion, other abortions, human cloning and other moral errors. It is understandable then how such persons could dislike the Diocese of Lincoln, which upholds the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.”

His response has been posted on a number of Web sites and has received positive and negative comments. Catholic supporters have pointed out the Lincoln Diocese’s clean record on child abuse compared to other dioceses and praised Bruskewitz for upholding church teachings.

“Wow! I know the Church is opposed to cloning, but maybe we could make an exception in the case of Bishop Bruskewitz,” said one writer to the Web site www.freerepublic.com.

“Almost all the responses I have received have been extremely positive and supportive,” Bruskewitz said in an e-mail interview with the Journal Star. “I have received only a few negative remarks from very few people who oftentimes have made their negative remarks out of misunderstanding and misinformation.”

The annual audits are intended to assess dioceses’ compliance with guidelines adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 for preventing and dealing with sex abuse. The Lincoln Diocese participated in the first audit, in 2003, but has declined to participate in subsequent annual audits.

In response to a question by the Journal Star, Bruskewitz explained the policies and procedures in the Lincoln Diocese to protect children and respond to any allegations of abuse by clergy, teachers, other staff or volunteers.

“The Diocese of Lincoln has in place a very strong program of instruction and training for all priests, religious and lay people in the diocese who are in any way, directly or indirectly, connected with children and youth. There are very careful and thorough background checks done for all people who are employed by the diocese, or by institutions, parishes or agencies which have any connection whatever with the diocese. All people, including all children and youth, are regularly instructed to report any incidents of abuse immediately to law enforcement authorities.”

In addition, any credible allegations of abuse will be presented to the diocese’s own lay review board “and then appropriately acted upon in accordance with the canon law of the Catholic Church,” he said.

According to an April 20 article by Tom McFeely in the National Catholic Register, the issue centers on “the question of the authority of individual bishops on the one hand and bishops’ conferences on the other.”

Bruskewitz has questioned the existence of the National Review Board, which was established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to assess individual dioceses’ compliance with national guidelines on abuse.

“My personal experience with the Charter and the audit process has led me to conclude that it is fundamentally a costly and expensive undertaking that brings forward little result, at least as far as the Diocese of Lincoln is concerned,” Bruskewitz said. “It may be that the Charter and the audit process are useful or even necessary for other places, but neither have much relevance to the Diocese of Lincoln.”

McFeely reported that Ewers does not dispute that Bruskewitz has authority to refuse to participate in the sexual abuse audits. Asked why she focused on Bruskewitz, whose diocese has not been embroiled in the abuse scandals, rather than calling for fraternal correction of bishops that have allowed widespread abuse, she said that “without an audit there was no ?certitude’ that the Diocese of Lincoln wasn’t more vulnerable to the problem than Bishop Bruskewitz believes,” McFeely reported.

Asked which members of the Review Board had advocated positions contrary to church teachings, Bruskewitz cited current board member Dr. Paul McHugh and former board member Leon Panetta.

Panetta, who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, supported abortion laws while a U.S. congressman. McHugh, a psychiatrist, has supported cloning human embryos to get stem cells.

Among the national critics of the Lincoln Diocese’s refusal to participate in the audit are leaders of Call to Action, an organization calling for reforms in the Catholic Church. Bruskewitz received nationwide attention 10 years ago when he included Call to Action in a list of organizations Catholics should not join or face excommunication.

Linda Pieczynski, media spokesperson for national Call to Action, said Bruskewitz “has defiantly refused even to self-report for the audit process with no consequences at all.” Ewers’ urging fraternal correction against Bruskewitz, she said, was “an absolutely useless gesture. It is time to ask whether the Charter for the protection of Children and Youth is living up to its promises in the real world, and not just in a report.”

The audit found the Diocese of Chicago in full compliance, but it appears the guidelines were not followed in a recent abuse case there, Pieczynski said.

“It is unsettling to see a Christian bishop claim that he and his diocese is above correction because he is in keeping with the letter of the civil and ecclesiastical law,” said Jim McShane, a local member of Call to Action.

McShane agreed that the National Review Board and bishops have “no canonical authority to compel anything,” but they do have moral authority. The bishops set up the review board to restore confidence in their care for young people after the sex abuse scandal, he said. For Bruskewitz to reject the process “can only undermine further the confidence the bishops are so anxious to restore,” McShane said.

In a March 30 statement, Bruskewitz noted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ charter on sex abuse is “only an advisory document” and participation is optional. “The Diocese of Lincoln participated fully in the initial audit conducted by the USCCB and has exercised its right to refrain from further participation in an audit,” he said.

He reiterated that the Lincoln diocese is in full compliance with all civil and church laws and has implemented all norms issued by the Vatican for prevention of abuse.

“The Diocese of Lincoln certainly is concerned with the protection of children and has taken what it believes to be appropriate steps in this area,” the bishop said.

Reach Bob Reeves at 473-7212 or at breeves@journalstar.com.