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Odd moments from the Catholic Bishop's Conference: Stories that didn't make the paper

Written by Ann Rodgers on .

20120614wap_cathbishopsA_200Summer meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tend to be rather slow and newsless -- so much so that I rarely cover them. But this year’s June meeting in Atlanta was so packed with news on Wednesday that reporters couldn’t even get summaries of it all into their stories.

The Post-Gazette, therefore, opted to cover their plan to write a letter about jobs and the economy, and their 10-year review of their child protection charter for Thursday’s paper, and make the religious freedom story wait a day so we could give it decent space in Friday’s paper.

But there are always interesting moments at the bishop’s conference that don’t get into my stories, either because they’re more inside baseball than news or because they require so much explanation that I can’t justify the space. So while I’m waiting in the Atlanta airport I’m going to go through my notes and put down as many of those odds-and-ends as I can before my flight for Pittsburgh boards.

The meeting opened a short walk from the hotel at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a lovely French Romanesque church built in 1897. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta preached. Archbishop Gregory was the calm, scholarly bishop who was head of the bishops’ conference during the height of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002, and who spearheaded their drive for zero tolerance and reform.

On Tuesday he faced a basilica of bishops, some of whom are still mired in scandal and all of whom are deeply engaged in a conflict with the government over religious freedom and a mandate for contraceptive coverage. He spoke of St. Anthony of Padua, a medieval Italian monk who was proclaimed a saint within a year of his death because of the power of his preaching, his love for Christ and the poor and his obvious holiness, Archbishop Gregory said\. He is also renowned as the saint who finds lost things.

“Certainly here our contemporary church ought to seek his assistance, since we seem to have lost something of our confidence and our vitality in proclaiming the gospel,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Unfortunately we may have also occasionally misplaced clerical integrity.”

Religious life, he said, “needs a serious renewal that St. Anthony can perhaps help us to rediscover.”

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Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the papal nuncio to the United States, praised the bishops’ efforts to raise the banner of religious freedom and resist a government effort for Catholic institutions to facilitate contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans.

“The church must speak with one voice,” he said. “We all know that the fundamental tactic of the enemy is to show a church divided.”

It was unclear whether he meant The Enemy, a traditional reference to Satan, or the bishops’ earthly foes.

Archbishop Vigano has been a key figure in the Vatican’s leaks scandal, in which the pope’s butler was found to be complicit in leaking sensitive church documents. They included correspondence from Archbishop Vigano, who had been an internal whistleblower protesting corruption in the Vatican’s financial operations before he was posted, against his will to the United States. His protests about the assignment ended up in news media worldwide.

After Archbishop Vigano was done speaking, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told him that the best aspect of his address “was that your talk was not leaked before you gave it.”

There were groans and nervous laughter from bishops who had just given the nuncio a standing ovation.

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In an address to the bishops on the 10th anniversary of their child protection charter, Al Notzon, the Texas layman who chairs the National Review Board that oversees their response to allegations, spoke of issues they must address in the future.

One difficult area is “boundary violations” that don’t amount to sexual abuse but can appear suspicious, either rightly or wrongly. In some cases they can be “grooming behavior,” a prelude to sexual abuse of a minor. In other cases they may be entirely innocent, he said, citing the example of a priest who tickles a baby that he is holding in his lap.

Reports of boundary violations are increasing, he said, saying that the psychologists and pediatricians who serve on his committee consider them a “murky area” for action.

An increasing number of reports concern international priests who “struggle with the behavioral conventions of American culture,” he said. “This issue needs to be investigated more thoroughly and programs instituted to help international priests.”

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At the time the charter was drafted the initial National Review Board promised that bishops who either refused to have their responses to sex abuse allegations audited or who persistently failed those audits would be called to account in the court of public opinion. The Diocese of Lincoln Nebraska, under Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, has refused for a decade to submit to audits. Although Mr. Notzon mentioned the number of dioceses that weren’t audited in certain years – sometimes for understandable reasons such as Hurricane Katrina – he never named Lincoln or any other violator.

When I asked about this at the press conference, Mr. Notzon said, “I personally will be visiting that diocese and trying to find out what the issue is and seeing if we can do something to address it.”

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Although the bishops are raising public concern about instances when federal, state or local governments have limited their ability to be a partner in social service work because of their stands on gay marriage or other issues, it was clear from the Catholic Relief Services report that there is still a strong financial relationship with the federal government.

CRS, the bishop’s international relief and development agency, receives 80 percent of its funding from the federal government, and is among the largest recipients among private aid groups. It wins about half the government grants it competes for, said Carolyn Woo, the executive director, in her report to the bishops.

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz asked about reports that the government was requiring CRS to distribute contraceptives. Dr. Woo confirmed that there had been such a proposal last summer, but after strong protests and high level negotiations, the government backed down.

“We are back at the table again. We are monitoring the issue very closely,” she said.

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It’s about time to put my computer away before they call my plane. Can’t wait to get back to the ‘Burgh.

(Top photo: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, right, Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks with Octavio Cisneros, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, at the USCCB biannual meeting Wednesday in Atlanta. David Goldman/Associated Press)

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