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Spotlight Report

Bishops move to bar abusers

But removal from priesthood not mandated

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 6/15/2002

Full text of the bishops' charter

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D ALLAS - The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, responding to the firestorm that has erupted over the church's frequent failure to fire sexually abusive clergy, yesterday voted to bar from ministry any priest who has ever abused a minor.

But bishops stopped short of requiring that abusers be removed from the priesthood, leaving that to the discretion of presiding bishops. Bishops did, however, agree to require themselves to report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to public authorities.

The new policy, approved overwhelmingly on a vote of 239-13, came five months after the current scandal exploded in Boston.

It is in some ways tougher than the policy proposed by a subcommittee last week: It no longer allows some priests who committed only one act of abuse in the past to continue in ministry. But in other ways, the policy is weaker: It no longer requires that bishops ask the pope to take the ultimate step of defrocking all abusers.

And to the dismay of many church critics, as well as some bishops, the new policy does not require any action against bishops, such as Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who in the past failed to remove abusive priests from ministry. But the bishops named Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma to a national panel that is supposed to study the church's handling of sexual abuse, and Keating said he will call for bishops who have failed to protect children to resign.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops' conference, who has led the nation's largest religious denomination through the greatest crisis in its history, proclaimed the new policy a success.

''From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States,'' Gregory said. ''... No free pass. No second chances. No free strike.''

Victim advocates assailed the policy, saying they want all abusers removed from the priesthood, and not just from jobs in ministry. And they criticized the absence of measures holding bishops accountable.

''The document is the best document the church has ever put out on this issue,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''Is it enough? We don't think so. Will it be implemented? We'll have to wait and see. History tells us we cannot be complacent and we cannot take these men at their word.''

The policy says that any priest who has ever abused a minor will be permanently removed from ministry, and is barred from celebrating Mass publicly, wearing clerical garb, or presenting himself publicly as a priest. The abusive priest could continue to celebrate Mass privately, but is expected ''to lead a life of prayer and penance.'' Either the offending priest or his bishop could ask the Vatican to defrock the priest, but that step would not be mandatory, and the bishops suggested they would not pursue that route, especially for priests who are old or infirm.

Much of the policy requires approval by the Vatican to become mandatory. The Vatican withheld comment yesterday on the proposal, pending a review by the Holy See.

Gregory said he expects expeditious approval, and that even before it is approved the bishops are expected immediately to begin voluntary implementation. The bishops pledged themselves to a day of prayer, fasting, and reparation on Aug. 14, and said that at their next meeting, in November, they would issue a report evaluating how well every bishop has done at putting the new requirements into place.

Under the new policy, the nation's 194 dioceses will be required to check the backgrounds of all diocesan and parish personnel who have contact with children and young people - a practice already in effect in many dioceses. And in making new assignments or transfers, bishops are now required to fully report a priest's record, including anything that might call into question his fitness for ministry.

In an effort to curb the secrecy that has characterized the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse in the past, dioceses will now be prohibited from entering into legal confidentiality agreements ''except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim [or] survivor.'' The policy calls for church leaders to adopt practices of ''transparency and openness'' in dealing with the public and the news media.

The policy requires local diocesan review boards to assess allegations, and those boards must be dominated by lay people. And the policy establishes a national Office for Child and Youth Protection to help dioceses implement ''safe environment'' programs and produce an annual public report on how the new policy is being implemented. The office's work will be reviewed by a national board that will be headed by Keating of Oklahoma and will include attorney Robert Bennett and Illinois Appeals Court Judge Anne M. Burke, as well as victims.

''As a Catholic layman, I am horrified and angry and shocked and puzzled and amazed that such criminal, such horrific, such sinful acts could occur within my faith community,'' Keating said in an evening news conference in Dallas. ''It is a horrific and pitiful statement ... that people who have been ordained to the ministry would do such things.''

Keating's panel is supposed to commission the church's first major study of the scope of clergy sexual abuse, which is to include statistics on the numbers of perpetrators and victims. Keating said that he expects his commission to call for the resignation of bishops who protected abusive priests, an act that he called obstruction of justice.

''To suggest someone would get away in the eyes of the church is simply inconceivable to me,'' he said.

And it requires every diocese to establish a system to reach out to every victim of clergy sexual abuse, no matter when that abuse occurred, and to offer them counseling and other social services agreed upon by the diocese and the victim.

The bishops approved the policy after two days of debate, first privately and then publicly, and after an unprecedented session of listening to the stories of victims and criticism from lay advocates of church reform. Law did not participate in the public debate except to suggest some technical changes.

Only one bishop publicly complained about the failure to call for discipline of bishops. He said the issue of resignation of bishops should have been mentioned in the document, and pointed out that one bishop in Ireland has resigned for his failure to protect children from an abusive priest.

''My grave concern is that we have deflected the primary anger of the Catholic people from the bishops to the priests,'' said Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn. ''The reality is we were blind. We were so cowed by the fear of scandal that we did not see the real problem ... We failed.''

A number of bishops thought the policy was too tough on priests, and said it violates the church's teachings of forgiveness.

''The easiest thing for the church would be to get rid of these people, but often there is a great deal of good the church can do by holding on to them while making sure they do not have access to children,'' said Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala. ''Justice to our brother priests ... seems to me part of our exercise.''

Some bishops objected to reporting all allegations to state authorities, saying the church should first decide whether the allegations are credible.

''We should not abandon truth,'' said Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., who pointed out that church canon law has a longer history than the US Constitution. ''When we do this, we rat out our priests, and I'm not in favor of that.''

Bishop John T. Steinbock of Fresno, Calif., fretted about allegations ''from some crazy person, which we all have in our dioceses.''

But such objections were quickly shot down by the majority.

''Anything we do to seem to give ourselves wiggle room will be immensely counterproductive,'' said Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati. ''It is not well advised, and may even be illegal in some places.''

And Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he has twice been falsely accused of abuse, and that ''I welcome the police intervention early.''

A handful of bishops opposed the policy, as did one of the church's most important thinkers, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit priest who is a theologian at Fordham University and an honorary member of the bishops' conference.

''We are depriving people of ministry not only for heinous crimes, but also for things that might be looks and touches that might be interpreted by some court as sexual molestation,'' he said. ''I think there are many things in the document that require further reflection.''

And retired Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage called the policy ''seriously flawed.''

''In many respects we have left ourselves open to charges that we sound like legislators who are getting a quick fix,'' he said. ''We are not as sensitive to our priests as we can be.''

But the group overwhelmingly supported the policy.

''We have to give very strong support to this document so we can give assurance, as much as possible, to our faithful, especially parents ... that our children and youth will be safe as much as humanly possible,'' said Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. ''We need strong support for this document to begin the process of healing and reconciliation, to begin to restore the credibility of the church and moral authority ... so that once again our faithful, without any embarrassment, will be able to say, `I'm proud to be a Catholic.'''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/15/2002.
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