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Bishops drop loophole

A zero-tolerance policy for Catholic priests who molest youngsters is under consideration by bishops.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 2002

A zero-tolerance policy for Catholic priests who molest youngsters is under consideration by bishops.

DALLAS -- America's Roman Catholic bishops, rocked by distrust among their faithful and anger within their own ranks, are moving toward a zero-tolerance policy on priests who molest children.

A church committee drafting new national policies had proposed that some priests be allowed to continue their work if they had molested only one child, long ago, and had been rehabilitated. But criticism from around the country has torpedoed that "one-strike" proposal, Bishop Robert Lynch of the St. Petersburg Diocese said Thursday.

The issue will be decided today at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the mood is clear, Lynch said during a break in meetings.

"I don't think there is a conservative left in that room," he said.

Lynch also spoke with candor about the scope of sexual misconduct within his diocese, which covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

During Lynch's 6 1/2-year-tenure, seven priests have engaged in sexual misconduct with minors, involving about 15 victims, he said. Allegations against two other priests were unfounded.

Lynch also said the diocese has paid between $350,000 and $400,000 to victims, mostly to help with counseling. That does not include the $100,000 paid to a former church employee who accused Lynch of sexual harassment. The church has always called that money severance pay and denied that any harassment took place.

As recently as two months ago, church officials refused to provide such specific numbers, saying personnel information was private.

Lynch also articulated a new policy on how the diocese would cooperate with civil authorities when any church member comes forward to allege molestation.

In the past, people who complained were told to report the crime to police or prosecutors if lodging a complaint would help them heal. Many victims chose to keep quiet because they feared publicity or hadn't told their families, Lynch said.

"Now we are saying, "We are sorry, we have to inform the authorities,' even in cases where police say there is nothing they can do," he said.

Since instituting the new policy about two months ago, no one has come forward with allegations, Lynch said. He expressed hope that any new victims were, in fact, going directly to authorities and not avoiding the church for fear of exposure.

"We have to be "transparent,' " Lynch said, using a church buzzword for ending the image of secrecy, coverup and bungling that has devastated the church and its 60-million members for the past several months.

Thursday's meeting at the Fairmont Hotel produced frank and emotional speeches as victims described their ruinous trauma and bishops barely masked their finger pointing at some of their colleagues who had wittingly, or unwittingly, protected pedophiliac priests.

Wilton Gregory, the Belleville, Ill., bishop who is president of the conference, vowed that the church would start putting child safety first and apologized profusely to victims, their families and church members.

"We (bishops) are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse," he said.

Then he made clear that "we" mostly applied to a few select bishops.

"The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops . . . has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a small number."

Referring to Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Diocese, where the worst of the scandals surfaced earlier in the year, Bishop Lynch later said in an interview, "We are all being tainted by the Boston brush."

In the Fairmont's lobby and cavernous press room, the atmosphere resembled a Super Bowl or political convention more than a stately gathering of the faithful.

Trying to project openness, the bishops allowed victims and their families to mill in the lobby, often holding up photographs of smiling children, presumably the innocents who were molested.

As the bishops broke for lunch or dinner, they had to run a gantlet of silent people holding up these photos, interspersed with TV and newspaper cameras waiting to capture the bishops' reactions.

In past years, the conference attracted a few dozen religion writers. This year the conference issued 750 press credentials -- more than three for every bishop -- and still turned media away.

The bishops have tried before to craft a consistent national policy on abusive priests, but were hampered by the church's fragmented organizational chart. Each of the country's dioceses or archdioceses is headed by a bishop or archbishop who is answerable only to the Vatican.

The conference of American bishops can vote on policy all it wants, but unless Pope John Paul II ratifies the vote, it will not be binding on individual bishops.

That's what happened in 1992. The bishops, as a group, tried to formalize procedures that would remove wayward priests from contact with children. The St. Petersburg Diocese followed the policy in every case, Lynch said. But individual bishops in other parts of the country continued to exercise their own discretion, and the results weren't always pretty.

After the recent scandal, donations to the church dropped, parishioners lost faith and respected scholars called for some bishops to resign and all bishops to cede some of their unilateral authority to lay people and to the tens of thousands of priests who are not molesting children.

"This scandal is only incidentally about the terrible sin and crime of the sexual abuse of minors," said Scott Appleby, a professor at Notre Dame University. "Catholics on the right, and the left, and in the deep middle, all are in basic agreement as to the causes of this scandal: a betrayal of fidelity enabled by the arrogance that comes with unchecked power."

Michael Bland, a Chicago psychologist, described how he eventually abandoned his dream of becoming a priest after being molested as a 15-year-old.

"He told me it was okay, it was part of growing up. It was normal. This left me confused, questioning in my own mind how could this be? Does he think about it when he is saying Mass?"

After two years in the seminary, Bland said, he finally told his superiors. Church attorneys wanted him to reconcile with his abuser, but he refused. People in the church suggested he was a "loose cannon," while the perpetrator went to treatment and now teaches at a Catholic university.

"I felt revictimized again, again and again," Bland said. The solution is "zero tolerance past, present and future."

Today, the bishops will show whether they agree.

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