The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Focus shifts to accused priests' rights

Vatican's revisions put spotlight on 'due process' issue

By Michael Paulson and Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 10/20/2002

The scene in June was remarkable: victims of clergy sex abuse at center stage, telling all the bishops of the United States, in public and on national television, about their pain and anger. Some cried. One asked the bishops to pass around a picture of a young man who had killed himself after being molested by a priest. And they did. A lone advocate for priests' rights was given a badge declaring him an ''observer'' at the Dallas bishops' conference, and he spent much of the week in a hotel corridor, buttonholing reporters who might listen to his argument that priests weren't getting a fair shake.

Flash-forward four months.

As US bishops prepare to meet again, next month in Washington, D.C., a new group has moved to center stage: accused priests. All summer, as hundreds of priests slowly lost their jobs over allegations of sexual abuse, the clamor began to rise. What about due process? What about a fair trial? A right to confront an accuser? A day in court?

Priests began to organize to assert their rights and to hire canon and civil lawyers to defend them. Some sued their accusers. Others appealed their removal from ministry to the Vatican. Bishops, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, scheduled gatherings to talk with angry clerics.

On Friday, the shift of the spotlight was complete. The Vatican said it would not approve the child protection policies proposed by the US bishops without ''revision'' to protect accused priests, and the bishops made it clear that at stake is whether and how priests who abuse children will be permanently removed from the priesthood.

''Deeply moved by the sufferings of the victims and their families, the Holy See supports the American bishops in their endeavor to respond firmly to the sexual misdeeds of the very small number of those who minister or labor in the service of the Church,'' wrote Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops. ''But such a very small number cannot overshadow the immense spiritual, human and social good that the vast majority of priests and religious in the United States have done and are still doing.''

Victims were irate at the renewed emphasis on deference to a church Code of Canon Law that for decades failed to prevent hundreds of priests from molesting thousands of children and failed to lead numerous bishops to remove from ministry those same abusive priests. They were angry that the church is citing the importance of a secretive legal system that is so complex and slow that few bishops try to defrock any but the most egregiously abusive priests. And they verbalized their worst fears: that once again, the church might be effectively protecting abusive priests at the expense of victimized parishioners.

''We had hoped and predicted that the shift would be from victims to children, from those already hurt to those at risk, and we welcome that shift because it does help us heal,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, ''But somehow totally missing now, in our view, is a focus on those at risk. What's happened is a small but influential and determined group of accused priests has, in essence, shifted the public debate and postured themselves as being victims, which is just an absolute tragedy.''

The emphasis on priests' rights is being viewed with suspicion by some because the bishops have lost so much public confidence over their handling of clergy sex abuse, according to Sandra Yocum Mize, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, a Catholic college in Ohio.

''Vatican officials' rejection of those sections in the US bishops' proposed policy identified as `zero tolerance' can certainly appear as an unwillingness to punish fellow clergy,'' Mize said.

The lack of trust was clear in the way many interest groups responded to the news that the Vatican wants to set up a commission to revise the policy - not an unusual move in church life.

''It is clear that the Vatican's underlying concern is not protecting children, but preserving the privilege and status of priests and bishops,'' said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for Call To Action, a progressive Catholic group. ''How can we trust a process run by the same people in the Vatican who have neglected to pursue other legitimate sex abuse complaints?''

But numerous observers leapt to the defense of the Vatican, arguing that the shift in attention reflects a natural tension between the protection of victims and the rights of the accused. That same tension exists in civil law.

''The US bishops at their meeting in Dallas quite rightly focused on protecting children,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, the Jesuit weekly. ''They did not present detailed procedures on how to process accusations, conduct investigations, judge credibility, decide guilt or innocence, and process appeals. They did not have the time, and if they had, the media would have gone through legal language with a fine-tooth comb suspecting loopholes. But ultimately these details are going to have to be worked out.''

But even some advocates of changing the policy to recognize the issue of priests' rights acknowledge the church faces a difficult balancing act.

''One of the greatest difficulties the bishops now face is making sure that those people who have made allegations in the past don't see what's taking place now as in any way an insensitivity or lack of concern about the serious evils that have been done in past,'' said the Rev. Kevin E. McKenna of Rochester, N.Y., the immediate past president of the Canon Law Society of America. ''I think people have to appreciate that the bishops have to look at protecting the rights of all parties involved and that due process has to be provided. My concern is that people who've made allegations in the past don't see this as any lessening of the bishops' resolve.''

One of the staunchest local advocates of priests' rights, the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, a leader of the Boston Priests' Forum, echoed that concern. ''I think the primary focus is still on the victims, and on what happened to children, and on this great crime that has been committed,'' said Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ''But the Dallas charter did neglect, I think, the due process rights of priests. That was the big void there, and it's being addressed now. But that's not done to the detriment of the primary concentration on victims.''

The Vatican intervention also reflects a reality of the Catholic church: It is a global organization, not a national one, and the US bishops can do very little without the approval of Rome.

The Vatican's decision to demand a revision of the sex-abuse policies approved by the bishops is just the latest in a long line of actions by the Vatican to rein in US bishops.

''This kind of communication is very much in keeping with the normal process by which bishops' conferences work with the Holy See to develop policies and procedures for use within a conference,'' said Law.

A decade ago, for example, the Vatican intervened in the US bishops' efforts to translate the lectionary - a book of church readings - and over the ensuing years the Vatican has repeatedly overruled efforts by the US bishops to decide locally which English words are used in prayer.

The Vatican also rebuked the bishops over Catholic colleges, declaring the bishops had not gone far enough to ensure that Catholic colleges were teaching the faith. Ultimately, the Vatican insisted on a policy that all Catholic theologians teaching at Catholic colleges submit to their bishops signed statements declaring that they would not misrepresent the church's teachings.

In some ways, the Vatican's decision to ask for changes to the Dallas policy is not surprising - it simply reflects the reality of a vast, hierarchical church in which the power rests not in Washington, but in Rome.

''There is no question that this is embarrassing for the American bishops, that the policy they came up with is not acceptable to Rome,'' said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. ''It is embarrassing to the bishops, because they pride themselves on their unity, and especially their unity with Rome.''

It will take another month before US Catholics really know how dramatically the Vatican wants to change clergy sex abuse policies. But Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, listed Vatican areas of concern that suggest Rome is focused on limiting how many priests get punished, restricting the role of laypeople in determining which priests get punished, and making sure priests the church wants to punish get a fair shake.

''On the three points that Bishop Gregory ticked off - the definition of sexual abuse, due process, and the role of lay boards - the Vatican is not going to give ground,'' said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. ''If they were going to give ground, they would have done it. In the Vatican's view, they're trying to restore balance, but from the point of view of victims, this argument is a very tough sell.''

Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/20/2002.
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