WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference expressed both hope and concern after the Diocese of Manchester reached a legal agreement over clergy sex abuse with the New Hampshire attorney general’s office.
In a statement Tuesday, conference president Bishop Wilton Gregory said, “I understand the pressures under which the diocese acted, and I note that this resolution is specific to the facts in the Diocese of Manchester and to the laws of the state of New Hampshire.”
Bishop Gregory concurred with many of the specific provisions of the agreement. “[T]here are elements in the agreement which parallel the bishops’ own decisions last June which are embodied in the ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,'” he said.
In particular, he cited “the idea that an audit function would be helpful in resolving this terrible problem permanently,” and mentioned the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, directed by former FBI official Kathleen McChesney.
Of particular concern to Bishop Gregory was the rationale of New Hampshire Attorney General Philip McLaughlin in pursuing the prosecution. The basis of the state’s argument was that the Church, as an institution, had failed in a “duty of care” relationship regarding the victims of offender priests, thereby justifying that the normal one-year statute of limitations for child endangerment or neglect be set aside.
This “duty of care” relationship is generally applied to parents; according to the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper, the “duty of care” statute has never before been applied to an institution. In effect, the attorney general’s argument would imply that the mishandling of offender priests was not an error on the part of any person, but an institutional failure of the Catholic Church as a whole, at least as instantiated in the Diocese of Manchester.
McLaughlin told the newspaper: “One of the reasons we chose to enter into this agreement with the Diocese of Manchester … was so there would be no opportunity to scapegoat and suggest these difficulties were the result of the indiscretion or the bad judgment of one or another priest or one or another diocesan bishop.”
“It is our belief these crimes occurred in the context of a culture, and we needed an acknowledgment of that,” he added. “None of those particular bishops ever perceived themselves as operating beyond the policy of their diocese.”
Bishop Gregory emphasized that the settlement “does not in any way indicate agreement on the part of any other diocese or of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the legal analysis on which the Office of the Attorney General of New Hampshire has acted.”
While he agreed that “Church leaders have not intentionally endangered the welfare of children,” he disputed the attribution of this failure to the Church as a whole.
“The errors of specific persons, at specific times and places which may have endangered children, cannot be attributed to the ‘Church’ as a whole without overlooking the lives of integrity and good works of ministers of the Church in our country throughout its history,” he said.