Diocese turns to in-house sleuths
By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Catholic parishioners with law enforcement backgrounds will now help investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by priests, Bishop Robert Lynch said Thursday.
For several years, the St. Petersburg Diocese relied on a "response team" of church members, church officials and the diocese's lawyer to sort through allegations and help support victims.
"They were good counselors and good lawyers, but not investigators," Lynch said. "Victims and the accused priest should have higher levels of comforts, somebody who has some experience in ferreting out fact from fiction."
Two investigators, who are retired from law enforcement fields, already have signed on. The church hopes to add three more soon, said Joe DiVito, the diocese's lawyer. That would make one investigator for each of the five counties served by the diocese. They will be paid as needed.
DiVito declined to name the investigators until all five are on board.
Besides the investigators, the church has also designated a "victim's assistance minister," said Marti Zeitz, who will coordinate the church's efforts to support molestation victims of priests, deacons or other church employees.
Victims often need extensive counseling and help in dealing with family members and law enforcement. A toll-free telephone number for Zeitz, 1-866-407-4505, was posted this week on the church's Web site, www.dioceseofstpete.org. These changes and other elements of church policy will be discussed tonight at meetings at three centrally located parishes. Church members may question their leaders about the child molestation scandals that have bubbled to the surface across the country.
Heart-wrenching accounts of now-adult victims and anger from disillusioned parishioners prompted America's bishops to take a harder line on sexual abuse. They tried to forge a consistent national policy in June and then refined it this week because the Vatican demanded more due process for accused priests.
DiVito said the primary elements of the new national policy have been in place for years in the St. Petersburg Diocese, which covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
It will work like this:
Priests accused of sexual misconduct will be temporarily suspended while the allegations are examined by investigators, who report to a review board dominated by lay people. The review board will make recommendations to the bishop.
If the allegations are deemed "credible," the priest will be removed from all active duties, including saying Mass, performing sacraments, wearing a collar and holding himself out as a priest.
If the priest fights the charges, the case will be assigned to a tribunal, either in Rome or a regional tribunal of church scholars. He will be deemed innocent until proven guilty and will have a lawyer. Even if the tribunal decides the priest is innocent, however, the local bishop may still prevent him from performing priestly functions, Lynch said. That's because bishops always have authority to assign diocese priests as they see fit.
(Some reports this week indicated that the church's statute of limitations meant that priests would be punished only if victims came forward by age 28. That is not true, Lynch said. That provision applied only to a nuance of canon law.)
As required by Florida law, the church will report to criminal authorities any accusation involving a victim who is still a minor. When victims come forward as adults, the diocese will encourage them to go to authorities, DiVito said. But the church will not take old cases to authorities when victims insist on anonymity.
This policy raises the possibility of adult victims who were molested under the age of 12, which can qualify as capital sexual battery under Florida law and has no statute of limitations. A priest could have committed a felony and church leaders will stay silent about it if the victims insist.
"We have had number of people contact us who have been very, very firm in demanding that they have confidentiality and do not want the matter to go to police," DiVito said. "We will accept them, give them pastoral care and honor their wishes, while encouraging them to discuss this with their counselor."
-Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at 727-893-8442 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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