Crisis Interview With Robert Bennett

Deal W. Hudson
February 1, 2003

Crisis publisher and editor Deal W. Hudson recently sat down with Robert S. Bennett, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a member of the U.S. bishops’ national review board on clergy sexual abuse, to talk about the work of the board.

Hudson: Who asked you to be on the national review board, and how did you feel about that invitation?

Bennett: I was asked by Bishop [Wilton D.] Gregory if I would serve on the board, and initially it was to be on the core committee. One of the first assignments was to complete the board. I was surprised by the call, but I was very flattered. I’m at that stage of my life where working on interesting and important matters has particular appeal to me. This assignment is both.

At the time Bishop Gregory called you, how seriously did you think the crisis in the Catholic Church was regarding the sexual-abuse scandal?

I thought it was a very serious crisis because it undermined the credibility of the bishops who speak on a variety of issues. One of the great things about the Church and the bishops is that they can speak with moral authority on all sorts of moral issues. This is an anchor. Their moral authority is being undermined.

At this point in time in your reflections and in your discussions of this, what do you think was the major cause of the breakdown that led to this problem? Do you have an idea?

You know, I don’t know how to answer that at this early stage. Obviously, on a very superficial level, it’s easy to identify the causes: You have priests who did not honor their commitment to celibacy. For whatever reasons, they did things that were sinful, immoral, and illegal. And then they were not handled properly when these things came to the attention of the hierarchy. But that’s a very superficial answer, and the job of any committee is to try to get beneath the surface.

One thing I’ve learned is that everybody has an opinion on this, and everybody has an agenda, oftentimes without having the facts. This is true of both the left and the right.

How is the report on the problem going to be created? What’s the process?

It’s sort of a work in progress. We have to combine two things. I think we certainly have to get scientific—I use the word “scientific” meaning objective—data. I mean, some people say celibacy has nothing to do with it, others say celibacy does, or homosexuality, etc. But we don’t have the data. We need to get our arms around the best data we possibly can. And then I think we have to combine that with extensive interviewing. We’ve made a preliminary list of people who we think can bring some value to the discussion on every side of the issue. I have no illusions that it’s going to be easy.

So this will be a long process, and you are tasked with the accumulation of data, of opinion, and then ultimately an editorial responsibility. Correct?

Yes. We have an active subcommittee with excellent people.

Who’s funding the national review board and all of this work?

My understanding is that it’s being funded by the bishops’ conference. But all of the work of those serving on the board is done pro bono.

So nobody’s really been paid for anything yet.

No. None of the board members are paid; we get reasonable expenses that are reimbursed but certainly none of our time in any fashion.

Now, you do have a new national director from the FBI.

Yes. Kathleen McChesney. She was the highest-ranking woman in the FBI and the third highest–ranking FBI official. We were enormously impressed with her, and she has all the necessary skills. She’s strong but very smart and wise, and she’s had a lot of experience in working with big organizations.

Does she report to the bishops, or does she report to the national review board?

She reports to both. The board works closely with her; we monitor her office. But technically, she is part of the senior staff of the bishops’ conference.

Are there any other major initiatives that the national review board is involved in right now?

There are several active committees. The mission of all committees is to protect children and young people and to ensure that what has occurred in the past never happens again.

So they’re actually going to produce a set of guidelines for dioceses, for bishops, and for priests?

Yes. There are some dioceses that we’re told have very good practices already. I know Washington’s is quite good, and I think Chicago’s is quite good as well. We’re going to be studying all of those and then coming up with some best practices so that there’s some uniformity to the process.

Have there been any surprises thus far in the meetings with the national review board?

No real surprises. Well, one pleasant surprise is that the board is an incredibly diverse group of smart and dedicated people. We don’t sit there discussing all of our views of the Church and Church policy, but my sense is that it’s a very diverse group that has conservative and liberal Catholics on it. But there’s an incredible coming-together on these critical issues. Everybody is determined to try to help the Church in this crisis. Everyone on the board is dedicated to doing the right thing and helping the Church.

I find that there are two kinds of reactions to Governor Frank Keating’s public comments: Some people are delighted that there’s a fresh and exuberant voice out there, and other people think that he has perhaps said too much and been a little imprudent. How has the board reacted to his public utterances?

I’m not sure that I want to get into inner discussions of the board. I think we’re very fortunate to have Frank Keating because he’s very strong and he has communicated a very important message that the kind of activity that brought us to this point cannot be tolerated. Everybody on the board agrees with that. So on the core things, the essential things, I think everybody is 100 percent behind Frank. You know, we all have our plusses and our minuses, but Frank is a very important factor here, and I think he is very important to the success of our mission.

Do you think the review board actually has as strong a mandate as it needs to effectively address this problem?

Yes, as long as you understand that we haven’t been given any enforcement authority. All we have is the wisdom hopefully—in what we say and the hard work that we do and our public image. I mean, all we have is—I hate the expression, but I don’t know a better one—the bully pulpit. All we can do is make findings and recommendations. We don’t have any further authority, and I’m not sure we should have. We have a strong and clear voice. It will be up to the bishops to decide whether to listen to us or not. Hopefully, they will.

You’re a busy man with a lot of responsibility. Is there any hesitation on your part—since you don’t have any enforcement authority—to spend all this time and energy doing this?

No hesitancy at all. The creation of this all-day national review board of high-profile people has produced an entity that’s going to do something. There’s going to be a report, and that report is going to be public. I don’t yet know what’s going to be in that report or what the conclusions will be. But there’s going to be a report, and it’s going to call it the way it is. That will have a life of its own. It’s inconceivable to me that it would be ignored.

What do you say to those Catholics who criticize your selection since you were President Clinton’s lawyer in his difficulties?

It’s irrelevant. I’m a lawyer—I represent people who have problems and difficulties. So what? I represented President Clinton, and I did my job as a lawyer. Now I’m doing another job for—in a sense—another client. You’re doing a job for somebody, like a doctor. That’s how I look at it.

Is it hard being the brother of Bill Bennett?

Is it hard? [laughs] No, no, no. Though I’d prefer he not criticize some of my clients so publicly. No, it’s very easy. He and I are quite close. We get along very well. In fact, I almost asked if Bishop Gregory picked the wrong Bennett since he writes about virtue and I have represented a few clients who some would say are not virtuous.

What did your brother say to you when he found out you were going to be on this national review board?

We just talked about it, and he thought it was interesting. There was no significant discussion. Like me and all laypeople, we are very concerned.

Do you think that the work of the national review board is fully embraced by the bishops?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. It’s clearly embraced by Bishop Gregory, and I think it’s fully embraced by several bishops. My impression is that they realize that there’s a crisis here, and they had best do something about it. But it remains to be seen as we go down this road. The board is going to be asking some very tough questions. Kathleen McChesney is essentially going to do an audit of each of these dioceses. While we’re not going to jump the gun, when that process is completed, if there are dioceses that are not complying with the charter or with what we perceive to be the standards and the guidelines, we will make the fact of noncompliance very clear. People will know about it.

Have you noticed that this scandal has united the left and the right of the Church on the issues of procedure, management, and administration? For example, I’ll be sitting next to an ex-nun—a dissident—and we’ll both agree that bishops have been terrible managers, that they shouldn’t have hidden this, and that they should have reported this to civil authorities. Of course, we’ll totally disagree on the role that doctrine or celibacy played in that. But in procedural matters, we’ll be in total agreement.

Now that you mention it, yes, I think you are right. But that’s why I say there is no other side to the issue. I mean, if you can’t protect children and young people, what are you doing? One of the questions I want to ask is if somebody stole $300,000 from your parish, would you have passed the other person on to another parish or another rectory without telling anyone about it? But it appears that some of that were done here.

Will your work also cover consensual sex between adults? That often falls under the rubric of abuse because of the special relationship between a priest and the member of his parish. It’s a power relationship, so it’s often described in the terms of abuse.

I think it should. I hate to sound vague, but we’re just feeling our way here. It is largely a question of power, and I think what’s going to make this a very difficult job is that to do an honest report, we’re going to have to touch a lot of very sensitive issues. Issues of celibacy and homosexuality—they’re all there. You may conclude at the end of the day that something is or isn’t a factor, but we certainly have to look at these things.

There is all kind of sexual abuse, and I think you’re quite right. It’s a power relationship. One is the shepherd, and the other is a member of the flock. We may see the abuse of a child as far more outrageous because it just cuts to the core, and we may be more forgiving of a consensual relationship between adults and even more forgiving of such a relationship if it’s heterosexual. But I’m not sure we can brush aside the fundamental point that there’s a disproportionate power relationship in most of these situations.

When you’re talking to so many people with so many points of view, how are you going to avoid a report that simply throws out different versions of the story? How are you going to be able to integrate that into a coherent vision?

My starting premise is that we have an obligation to reach the best conclusions that we can reach, and not simply to throw out a smorgasbord of so-and-so says this and so-and-so says that. We have an obligation as a board to do the best job we can in finding answers.

One of my concerns is that we’re expected to act quickly. I’m afraid that some of the tasks presented to us are going to take a long time, and I don’t know quite how to accommodate the tasks for quick action with the thoroughness required in this difficult situation. I don’t want to mention names right now, for obvious reasons, but representatives of the board met last week with a group that we are thinking about retaining to do certain studies. I wanted answers to certain questions: Why are most of these older cases? What’s the orientation of most of the priests? Is the seminary training making any difference? They said it might take three to four years for a detailed analysis. And I said we can’t wait that long.

We’ve got to get this job done within a year or so, give or take. So that has me worried. But to answer your question, I think we have an obligation to draw some bright lines if we can. We need to do the best job we can and come up with some conclusions we are comfortable with, which are supported by the evidence.

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