Panel says bishops dragging feet on reform

? A key panel of lay Roman Catholics is angrily accusing American bishops of backsliding on a central plank of their reform program aimed at stopping clergy sexual abuse.

But some church leaders are fighting back, saying that the National Review Board is overstepping its authority.

“There can be no more foot-dragging by the hierarchy,” Anne Burke, interim chairwoman of the review board, said Tuesday night at an appearance in northern New Jersey. The first leader of the board, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, quit last year after he also accused some bishops of being obstructionists.

This is a “defining moment” for the church, said Burke, an Illinois Appellate justice, speaking to members of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform lobby group.

The flash point in the dispute between the board and certain bishops is a section of the prelates’ 2002 sex abuse policy, which — as part of its monitoring provisions — calls for audits of each diocese to ensure they are complying with the policy.

Results of the first such audit, for 2003, were issued in January, and the review board insists the policy requires that further audits must be done annually.

In March, the U.S. bishops’ 46-member Administrative Committee agreed to delay discussion of audits until November, effectively canceling them for this year.

Burke, speaking for all review board members, then wrote a rebuke to the hierarchy’s president, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill.

With no 2004 audit, Burke warned, the bishops risk having it seem they were “willing to be honest and compliant” when public outrage peaked in 2002 but now want to put the abuse crisis behind them.

“We are very disheartened by this apparent decision to go back to ‘business as usual,”‘ Burke wrote.