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Spotlight Report

Jumble of abuse policies sows confusion in church

By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 4/28/2002

Philadelphia's cardinal bans priests who admit having homosexual tendencies. The Diocese of Dallas doesn't allow priests to be alone with children, not even during confession. The archbishop of Los Angeles boasts of a zero-tolerance policy that requires reporting to civil authorities substantiated cases of sexual abuse by priests. In a mostly rural diocese in northern California, allegations of abuse must be reported if the accuser is still a child, but not if now an adult.

Building on an outline that American cardinals drafted in Rome last week, the nation's Catholic bishops are preparing to meet in June to spell out a policy on sexual abuse that would bring more uniformity to how the church's 194 dioceses handle the issue, a need made all the more obvious by the wide divergence in their current practices.

But the autonomy of prelates in their dioceses and the impact of varied state laws means - unless Pope John Paul II takes action - that Catholic churches will not have exactly the same approach even after the US Conference of Catholic Bishops develops a new nationwide policy, a process that is unlikely to be completed at their three-day meeting in Dallas beginning June 13.

After earlier scandals, it took the conference of bishops almost two years to develop its current framework for dealing with the problem, guidelines that were finalized in 1994. Nearly every diocese drafted its own policy, based on that framework, leading to some common procedures. Even so, what Catholic churches do when one of their own sexually abuses a child differs from New York to Alabama to Oregon.

''The problem has been there isn't uniformity or consistency,'' said Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented more than 500 victims of priest abuse across the country. ''These policies are all over the place. It's like having 194 corporations going in 194 different directions. But if the bishops implement a real policy that follows the law, then it will be a huge step forward and might even bring the church into the 20th century.''

Claims of clergy sexual abuse against minors have caught the public's attention for nearly 20 years, starting with a 1984 case involving the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, La. In 1993, Pope John Paul II issued a letter condemning child abuse; the year before, American bishops had started to draft guidelines to help churches handle such cases.

''That was kind of the template or the framework for handling issues of sexual abuse in dioceses across the United States,'' said William Ryan, spokesman for US Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in Washington, D.C.

During the drafting of that framework, the conference asked the then-191 dioceses for copies of their policies. A total of 178 dioceses responded, submitting 157 different policies. Ryan said 41 of those applied only to clergy, while 116 also covered other diocese employees and volunteers.

Dioceses have responded to the bishops' guidelines by adopting policies on sexual abuse, but legal specialists say that many dioceses, like the one in Portland, Ore., did not get serious about the issue until faced with scandals of their own. New York, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, where the church leaders are under fire for transferring known abusers from parish to parish, have all begun to reexamine their policies, for instance.

After scandal erupted in Boston in January, Cardinal Bernard F. Law announced a change in archdiocesan policy, including a ''zero-tolerance policy.'' He at first mandated the reporting to law enforcement of current and future cases involving the archdiocese's priests, then revised the policy to include past allegations.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the nation's largest archdiocese, this month imposed a zero tolerance policy and created an investigative panel of laity that reviews abuse allegations, which are forwarded to civil authorities if substantiated. Several of the cardinals who met in Rome last week have disagreed about whether the pope endorsed a similar zero tolerance policy.

Many policies adopted before the latest scandals were similar. Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University and member of the Pontifical Council of Laity, said the similar threads that are most important are ''criminal background checks on all persons working for the church, procedures for suspending priests [based on] credible allegations, and attention to reform of the seminary.''

Critics like Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that dioceses in Chicago and Los Angeles have what are perceived to be strong policies. But she contended that few have actually abided by their own policies. And archdioceses like Philadelphia's have approaches that she said blame homosexuality for a problem that has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese interviews seminarians about their sexual urges, and does not accept any who admit to homosexual tendencies. That unusual policy - in effect for 13 years - is stricter than canon law, which does not regard those tendencies as a sin.

One of the more common policies in place gives laity a role on church boards that investigate allegations of abuse.

Glendon contended that recent allegations refer mostly to abuse said to have occurred 10 to 30 years ago, in her view evidence that the current array of policies has succeeded.

''That is the most important part of this whole terrible story, that there [have] been very few new cases of clergy abuse anywhere since 1993,'' Glendon said. ''There was a big change, and so what will happen now is a review of all the policies to find out what their best features are and to make them uniform across the country.''

The pope will have to ratify whatever new policy is developed to ensure it becomes uniform.

''Unless it comes from Rome, bishops can do what they want to do. The bishop is completely autonomous and answers to the Holy See,'' said Anderson, the Minnesota lawyer. ''If it doesn't come from Rome, then it's only advisory, and each bishop can ignore it or change it the way they want it.''

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said Friday that bishops will try to create a national policy and then ask the Vatican to make it law for the entire Catholic Church. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said the church may create an advisory board of experts to help church leaders develop a national policy, which suggests it would take a while to draft it. Bronson Havard, spokesman for the Dallas Diocese, said that regardless of how long it takes, the Catholic Church needs one policy on sexual abuse.

''I think that would be helpful because over and over you hear, `why was this treated this way in one state and another in the other state,''' Havard said. ''The simple explanation is that law for reporting abuse is different in every state. So the church should get proactive and out front to create some standards of reporting and standards to how the church should treat incidents.''

Not all states have laws on mandatory reporting that apply to churches, although some dioceses routinely inform authorities when they have evidence of abuse. Colorado does not require clergy to report abuse, for instance, but since 1991 the Denver Archdiocese has required all parishioners, priests, and other employees to do so. Alabama exempts clergy from mandatory reporting, but the state's attorney general has asked legislators to review the law.

According to church officials, another problem has been that some policies focus on underage victims rather than the men in their 30s and 40s who have filed many of the latest lawsuits.

In California, the Stockton Diocese in 1998 paid $7 million to two brothers who had been molested by a priest from the time they were toddlers into their teens. A new case involves an adult male who recently alleged he was molested by a priest as a child. Barbara Thiella, a diocese spokeswoman, said the diocese has been criticized for not reporting the case to civil authorities but she said officials urged the man to go to authorities. The diocese followed California law, which requires reports to civil authorities only when the alleged abuse involves someone who is currently a minor. She said the man's family also asked the diocese not to make that case public. Despite its policy, the diocese does sometimes make a judgment call to report cases involving adult victims, she said.

Anderson argued that church policies should include adults who were abused years ago because most victims wait to come forward.

The Diocese of Dallas, which was hit by one of the biggest abuse scandals of the 1990s, has one of the toughest policies. Among other things, it requires fingerprinting priests and other employees. Priests are prohibited from being alone with a child, and the church has cut windows in office doors to enforce that ban. Havard, the diocese spokesman, said adults are supposed to be nearby when a child says confession to a priest.

''It's for the protection of both parties,'' Havard said. ''So that the child may not be a victim or the adult may not be misunderstood. In today's society where we are watchful and on guard for child abuse we have to take unusual precautions. That is the real world we live in.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.
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