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In Hindsight, What Might Have Been Done

By Peter Steinfels

It has been a season of jolting ups and downs for Bishop John F. Kinney of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., a man who nine years ago was at the center of an effort to focus the attention of the nation's Roman Catholic hierarchy on the problem of priests who sexually abuse young people.

Despite that record, a month ago, at one of the four public sessions that Bishop Kinney organized to hear the views of Catholics in his 12,000-square-mile diocese in central Minnesota, he faced what one staff member called booing from some angry church members, but what the bishop himself preferred to call "high emotion" and "disagreeing."

Then, at the emotionally wrenching opening session of last week's meeting of the Catholic bishops conference in Dallas, he was one of four bishops who introduced victims they had known to the group. Back in St. Cloud, Bishop Kinney sent letters on Wednesday telling three priests that, although they were already no longer in parish ministry, the church's new "zero tolerance" policy meant they could no longer wear clerical garb or publicly present themselves as priests.

On Thursday, he greeted friends and family at a Mass and reception commemorating the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. (Now 65, he was once the youngest bishop in the country.) That was "a high" he needed, he told the well-wishers.

But yesterday morning, he was contemplating the work ahead: mending the distrust and alienation that he said was growing between priests and the laity, on one hand, and bishops, on the other. "We can't come back home and do business as usual as if the relationships haven't been affected," he said.

Bishop Kinney, in fact, had been warning against business as usual for a long time. In 1993, he was appointed to lead a new Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse for the bishops' conference, and in a lunch break at the Dallas meeting he spoke of what might have been.

"All these things we are talking about now," said Bishop Kinney, who until 2000 was chairman of the committee, "were on our plate then, but the climate was far less acceptable." The ad hoc committee's task was to put meat on the bare bones of the five principles that the bishops' conference had endorsed the year before as guidelines for dioceses in sexual abuse cases. Bishop Kinney recalled the "high intensity" with which the committee worked from 1993 to 1995. It heard the testimonies of victims of abuse, and more than once, Bishop Kinney said, he would return to his room after a meeting and weep. Although the committee's recommendations were more specific than the five principles, they were still less stringent than the policy the bishops approved in Dallas. Even so, the earlier recommendations never made it to the floor of the bishops' conference for debate and a vote.

Nor were Bishop Kinney and his committee more successful with other ideas proposed to the Administrative Committee of the bishops' conference, a body of more than 50 members that serves, among other things, as a kind of steering committee for the whole conference.

One proposal, he said, was to collect data from dioceses about the extent of the problem, the numbers of perpetrators and victims, the disposition of their cases and the amount of money expended. Although some of that information is supposed to be gathered by the new national review board authorized in Dallas and headed by Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, its absence up to now created a void that has been filled by speculation and guesswork.

Another proposal, Bishop Kinney said, was healing sessions like the collective encounter with victims that the bishops experienced last week. These ideas "were discussed in the administrative committee," he recalled, but they "never saw the light of day, they just didn't fly." Why not? "The climate was different," he said again. Some bishops, he said, were even uncomfortable about any committee explicitly named "on Sexual Abuse." In addition, many bishops had suspicions about the conference's infringing on the authority of each bishop.

Over all, Bishop Kinney concluded, there was "a lack of understanding of the gravity of the issue."

The absence of endorsement by all the bishops did not keep Bishop Kinney's committee from issuing, in its own name, "Restoring Trust," three volumes of studies addressing sexual abuse of minors by priests. "I'm sad and angry that we assumed that the bishops were going back home with 'Restoring Trust' and would share it," with their staffs and people, he said, and then put new policies into operation.

Quite a few bishops did, he quickly added. "But we always knew we would be judged by the worst-case scenarios," he said, "and that's exactly what has happened." Maybe it was already too little, too late. Most of the shocking cases recently brought to light both of abuse itself and of negligent or callous responses by church officials had already occurred by then. Following the advice of therapists at that time, the committee entertained the possibility that some priests who appeared to have successfully undergone treatment after sexually abusing teenagers could be reassigned to supervised posts away from young people. Its stance, though wary, fell short of the "zero tolerance" policy adopted in Dallas.

Nonetheless, had the committee's work received greater visibility and endorsement, Catholics might have been informed about this problem years before they were overwhelmed by a sudden flood of revelations.

At a time when most bishops had ceased to shift offenders automatically but were still struggling with the question of reassigning priests after treatment "always the thorny issue," Bishop Kinney said the views of ordinary Catholics might have been taken into account.

Catholics generally might have been alerted to the need for major reforms in the way accusations of sexual abuse were handled. The bishops might have been pushed for greater openness and accountability than Bishop Kinney's committee then contemplated.

Might have been, might have been. There are no sadder words, Whittier wrote, and Bishop Kinney would not disagree.