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Mark Chopko had one goal in mind: to quell mounting criticism over charges that Roman Catholic priests were sexually abusing boys under their tutelage. Noting the alarming surge in reported cases, Chopko called for immediate action. Religious leaders needed to be educated. Sensitivity to and support for victims and their families must be shown. Pedophiliac priests should be punished. Above all, Chopko’s official statement, delivered in his capacity as the senior lawyer for the U.S. Catholic Church’s leading lobby group, was meant to be reassuring. The cycle of child abuse had to be broken “here and now,” he asserted. That was 14 years ago. The scandal that dogged the church then continues to hound it — and Chopko. As the general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a Washington, D.C.-based group analogous to a trade association, he has one of the most thankless jobs around. Chopko has spent years defending the church, both in the public eye and behind the scenes, from persistent molestation charges. In the past three months, revelations emerged that rather than defrock known pedophiles, the church sent them to therapy and then reassigned them to new parishes. And Chopko has been quoted no fewer than 42 times as of late April in major news stories about the scandal, according to Lexis Nexis. Indeed, his role as chief sex abuse spokesman was established years ago. It’s hard to imagine that he does anything else. Turns out, Chopko’s got a pretty normal job — molestation charges aside. Raised Catholic and a native northern Pennsylvanian, he studied law at Cornell University, graduating with a J.D. in 1977. Chopko then joined the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where, among other things, he represented agency officials in the federal investigations that grew out of the Three Mile Island accident. By 1984 he was ready to leave but was barred by ethics rules from going straight into private practice. Instead, a friend alerted him to a blind ad in a local Washington, D.C., paper for a litigator at a religious nonprofit. Chopko applied, and, while someone else got that job, he was offered another position, as an assistant general counsel handling anti-abortion and other controversial issues. Within three years he was promoted, at the age of 33, to general counsel. Today Chopko oversees a seven-lawyer department with an annual budget of more than $1 million. The issues he faces mirror any major corporation’s, ranging from intellectual property to tax to real estate to immigration. That said, dealing with pedophilia has been a dominant theme in his legal career. Ever since allegations of sexual misconduct first gained national attention in a 1985 Louisiana case, Chopko has played a major role in defending the church. Over the years he’s advised various dioceses on defending civil suits brought by alleged victims (each of the country’s 194 dioceses are legally and operationally separate; only about 30 have their own law departments), including a closely watched Dallas case that resulted in 1997 in a $120 million verdict. The U.S. conference itself was named as a defendant “about a dozen times a dozen years ago,” he says, but has never been held liable. More recently, he tagged along with 12 American cardinals who were summoned by the pope to the Vatican to discuss crisis management. He won’t discuss his recent trip in detail, nor will he elaborate on his sex-related work over the years. He acknowledges, though, that he helped draft, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a set of principles aimed at addressing molestation through education, prevention and punishment. It’s the retribution part — or lack thereof — that has now taken center stage. In particular, Cardinal Bernard Law and Cardinal Edward Egan of Boston and New York, respectively, have come under fierce attack for treating offenders leniently and merely banishing pedophiliacs to distant parishes. To that extent, Chopko’s 1988 call to action fell short. In it, he talked about suspending clergymen “whenever appropriate” but also discussed the need to rehabilitate offenders. Does Chopko regret that he didn’t do more? “I find it difficult,” he now says, “to deal with the idea that maybe I wasn’t vocal enough or visible enough.” Still, Chopko defends that earlier policy, and later revisions, as merely a “floor” on which individual dioceses could build more robust policies. In light of the recent controversy, it appears a foregone conclusion that U.S. Catholic bishops will adopt a far more stringent national protocol when they meet in Dallas in the middle of the month. Chopko says he’ll help draft that policy, too. With all the years he’s spent in the hot seat, Chopko responds to questions with practiced equanimity. First, he notes that there’s no such thing as a unified litigation strategy: Each diocese crafts its own defense. While some have been more aggressive than others, Chopko rejects the idea that somehow the church should be held to a higher standard in the courtroom: “Plaintiffs’ lawyers need to keep in mind they’re suing a public charity whose obligation is to make sure the church continues and is not impaired.” Sometimes, he continues, that justifies priests employing a Bill Clintonesque style of defense and parsing language in police interrogations or under oath. Is he frustrated by the media feeding frenzy? Absolutely, says Chopko. While noting that the latest chapter in the scandal doesn’t involve fresh allegations, he’s also annoyed at the church’s stance. “There shouldn’t be anyone in the ministry right now who is a threat, in any way, to any young person anywhere,” he says. Still, he’s reconciled himself to the idea that the issue might never go away. “The current situation has taught me we can’t be complacent or say, ‘We have a policy’ and leave it at that,” says Chopko. “We have to be vigilant.”

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