Reprinted with permission of National Catholic Reporter.

WASHINGTON, May 11--The high-profile lay committee investigating the clergy sex abuse scandals was "manipulated" by the bishops, who used the 13-member National Review Board for public relations cover while withholding key information from the panel.

That charge was made in a March 30 letter [read PDF version] from Anne Burke, the Illinois Court of Appeal Justice who serves as the Board's interim chair, to bishops' conference President Wilton Gregory.

Copies of correspondence obtained by NCR indicate the board's relationship with dozens of members of the hierarchy is severely strained. While the language used by the NRB and the bishops falls short of the invective that led then-NRB chairman Frank Keating to resign in June 2003 (he compared the bishops to the mafia), it is far from collegial. Board members question the bishops' commitment to child protection, while some bishops charge the NRB has strayed beyond its mandate.

Burke's letter paints a picture of hierarchical deception and public relations maneuvering. While the letter bears her signature, it was reviewed and approved by the Review Board, Burke told NCR.

Even as NRB members were presenting their findings on the scope and causes of the crisis to a widely-covered Feb. 27 press conference, wrote Burke, its members were unaware that the bishops were considering shelving or delaying some of the board's key recommendations. Nearly a month later, as four NRB members formally presented the recommendations to the bishops' Administrative Committee, the Board had not been informed that key members of the hierarchy were seeking to defer or derail a second round of audits designed to measure diocesan compliance with child-protection policies established by the bishops at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas.

"We find it more than disingenuous to have permitted our members to make their presentations to the Administrative Committee and never once bring up or mention the letters from some bishops asking to defer these matters until November," wrote Burke. Further, wrote Burke, "it is hard to reach any other conclusion than that the failure to tell the NRB of these matters in a timely fashion was to make sure that they did not come up in any discussions with the national media on February 27."

Said Burke, "In short, we were manipulated."

She continued, "We believe that the work we have accomplished these past 22 months is perceived by the bishops as having successfully deflected extensive national criticism. In effect, they have 'dodged the bullet,' and they are anxious to put these matters behind them."

Among those urging the administrative committee to defer a decision on the audits was New York Cardinal Edward Egan, writing on behalf of a number of New York bishops. "We write to report that the undersigned bishops and diocesan administrators are not in favor of extending these efforts until after the matter has been discussed by all of the bishops . at their general meeting in November," Egan wrote Feb. 2.

Using identical language in two separate letters, 12 bishops from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Nebraska wrote Gregory in mid-February. Those bishops - including Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, Newark Archbishop John Myers, Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss, and Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz - said they were "opposed to any extension of the National Audit regarding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy until all the bishops . have an opportunity to discuss this matter in executive session at our general meeting in November, 2004."

Further, said the two letters, it is "advisable not to give any impression to the media that the numerous recommendations coming from the Office of Child and Youth Protection are in any way assured before they are discussed by the bishops."

A Feb. 12 letter to Gregory signed by more than a dozen Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania bishops warned that the NRB and the Bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection "appear to be expanding their competence, responsibilities, activities, and studies in a dynamic of autonomy." Said the bishops: "We are troubled . when we see the word 'independent' being used indiscriminately in reference to both entities."

Gregory announced last month that the bishops would consider whether to proceed with the audits at their closed-door meeting in June. It is unclear, however, if they will vote on the matter at that gathering, which is designed as a spiritual retreat and not a business meeting.

Meanwhile, on April 2, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and his auxiliary bishop, Jose Gomez, responded to Burke. Her letter, they wrote, "assumes the worst motives on the part of the bishops, despite the progress that has already been made. Your language is designed to offend and contains implicit threats that are, to put it mildly, inappropriate for anyone of your professional stature." Burke's letter, said the two bishops, "invites resistance."