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Abusers to lose priestly duties

The nation's Catholic bishops also vote to forward all allegations of abuse to civil officials.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 15, 2002


DALLAS -- The black-garbed men who run America's Roman Catholic Church want to send a clear and ringing message to their faithful: We get it.

Priests who abuse children -- even once, even long ago -- must abandon their ministry, never to say Mass again, never to hold themselves out as righteous men of God.

Allegations of abuse must be forwarded immediately to police and prosecutors, even when church leaders don't give those allegations much credence.

Bishops who once handled these ugly matters at their own discretion, in their own bailiwicks, must now operate under a nationwide microscope to make sure their judgment never slips again.

These are the essential thrusts of a broad national policy passed Friday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For a powerful group that oversees the spiritual life of 60-million Americans, it was a humbling moment. The bishops essentially acknowledged that some of them bungled their jobs and harmed children. They ceded significant authority to laypeople, who will now sit in judgment of accused priests and deacons.

But they had little choice. Nationwide outrage from parishioners and dramatic witness from victims led the bishops to vote 239-13 to crack down and move on.

"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the conference. "We apologize to anyone harmed by one of our priests and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse."

The bishops voted to implement the new policy immediately, though they technically are not bound by it because they report only to Pope John Paul II.

But "239-13 gives it as strong a moral obligation as law," said Bishop Robert Lynch of the St. Petersburg Diocese. "I would not want to be the bishop who ignored it."

Ten years ago, the bishops passed a less stringent policy that many of them followed, but some did not. That failure contributed to continued sexual molestations in areas such as Boston, where priests who had admitted their transgressions were exposed to still more children because church leaders thought they had been treated and cured.

This time around, the bishops took two measures to try to cement their plan: They asked the Vatican to turn the policy into binding church law. And they created a national Office for Child and Youth Protection that will publicize reports on how each individual bishop is complying.

Some victim advocates remained skeptical.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the bishops did not go far enough.

"The document is the best document the church has put out on this issue," said Clohessy, who had addressed the bishops conference Thursday. "Is it enough? We don't think so. Will it be implemented? We'll simply have to wait and see."

One sign that the bishops mean business this time was the near-unanimity of the final vote, compared to some of heated debate that preceded it.

Many bishops objected to the policy's "zero tolerance" approach. They worried about priests who molested one child long ago, underwent treatment and served without further problem for decades.

Although forgiveness is a cardinal tenet of the Catholic faith, the policy would treat these priests no differently from serial abusers. As soon as the bishops return home today, some priests are going to lose their jobs.

"This policy is going to intensify our priests' increasing reluctance to minister directly to children," said Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans. "Children need protection against the absence of priests in the ministry just as they need protection against child abuse."

Other discussion focused on eliminating all discretion about reporting allegations to prosecutors. Many bishops wanted to limit such reports to "credible" allegations.

If the bishops must now report the allegations "of any person who doesn't like a priest ... we can do that. But we are fools," said Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockport, Ill. "We should have substantial, credible, proven, true allegations and if we do not, we have abandoned reason. We will rat out our priests and I'm not in favor of it."

But Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles said police intervention cleared the air after two allegations against him were investigated and not prosecuted.

"It's helpful to priests to have them deal with it and get over it quickly."

Key portions of the policy include:

The diocese will report any allegation involving a minor to prosecutors, whether or not the victim agrees. If alleged victims are no longer minors, encourage them to go to authorities, then cooperate with that investigation.

A church review board will evaluate the truth of allegations. The majority of this board will be laypeople not employed by the diocese. Bishops presumably would appoint this board, Lynch said, but he would consider letting a neutral expert, such as a retired juvenile judge, set up the team.

While the review board investigates the allegation, the accused priest will be removed immediately from his ministerial duties.

If the review board believes the allegations, the priest will be permanently removed from all ministerial duties, forbidden to wear clerical garb and permanently removed from diocese roles. He may not hold himself out as a priest.

When paying victims money, the diocese will not enter into confidentiality agreements "except for grave and substantial reasons brought for ward by the victim/survivor."

Each diocese will set up counseling programs and support groups for victims and their families and will designate a special counselor just for victims.

Lynch said most of these policies are already in place in the St. Petersburg Diocese, except that he will have to hire a victim counselor and change the composition of the review board he uses to evaluate allegations. "I'm relieved now that everybody else is going to have to do what we are doing. That's a big plus."

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