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Spotlight Report

Critics call policy on clergy too lenient

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 6/15/2002

Full text of the bishops' charter

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D ALLAS - In the end, many survivors of clergy sex abuse said, it still came down to this: priests first, victims second.

As nearly 300 of the nation's Catholic bishops yesterday approved a binding national child protection policy that allows priests who have sexually abused minors to remain in the priesthood, victim advocates and abuse survivors reacted with anger and disappointment, saying that church officials had put the rights of clerics over the welfare of children.

''This isn't the Charter for the Protection of Children, it's the Charter for the Preservation of Priests,'' said Mark V. Serrano of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. ''They're doing what they've always done, which is put priests ahead of children.''

The new policy calls for abusive priests - many of whom were involved in episodes dating to the 1960s and 1970s that fall outside the criminal statute of limitations - to be stripped of their collars and removed from public ministry, denying them the right to work in any parish, school, or hospital setting. But it allows abusers to remain in the priesthood in a clerical environment, such as a monastery, where, the bishops said, they would pose no threat to children.

Keeping abusive priests in a supervised setting, the bishops said, is far superior to casting them, unmonitored, into general society. Defrocking, or expulsion from the priesthood, would remain an option.

The victims and their advocates had not yet seen a final draft of the new policy but they expressed a general dissatisfaction that the policy offered leniency for abusive priests. ''Based on their vote today, a sexual predator can still carry the title of father, and that's one of the tools of a sexual predator,'' said Serrano.

By failing to adopt a policy that automatically ousts abusers from the priesthood, many victim advocates said, the bishops backpedaled on a key piece of an effective child protection plan: zero tolerance for priests who molest minors. And critics of the policy flatly rejected the notion that banishing an abusive priest to a remote setting is enough to keep him away from children.

''A monastery represents a change of locale for a priest. It doesn't represent a barrier or an obstacle,'' said SNAP director David Clohessy. ''Our goal is to keep children safe. The way you do that is to prosecute and incarcerate molesters.''

''We have a wonderful place in society for these people who are proven guilty,'' added Michael Emerton, a member of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group based in Wellesley, Mass. ''It's called jail.''

But prison is not an option for priests whose abuses fall outside the criminal statute of limitations. The bishops argued keeping an accused priest in a clerical setting is safer than expulsion.

''This is probably better than putting him on the street,'' said The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine, who was optimistic about the policy. ''If you put him in a special facility you can at least monitor him.''

Despite their dissatisfaction with several aspects of the policy, victims and their advocates had some qualified praise for the document, too. The new sex abuse guidelines are ''more exhaustive, more detailed, and sound more promising'' than any other guidelines approved by the bishops in the past, Clohessy said. ''Whether or not this is progress,'' he added, ''it's simply too early to tell.''

Clohessy and others also expressed concern that the policy lacks penalties for bishops who fail to implement the new guidelines in their home dioceses, especially given their poor track record of monitoring and disciplining abusive priests.

The Catholic Action League issued a statement applauding many aspects of the policy. ''Every fair-minded person will say that the US bishops made much progress in dealing with the issue of child sexual molestation by priests,'' the statement said. But the group criticized the policy for not addressing accountability.

''While the bishops dealt firmly with molesting priests, they did virtually nothing about those bishops who enabled offending priests,'' the statement said, adding that, ''[u]nless some resignations are forthcoming, lay Catholics will not be satisfied.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 6/15/2002.
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