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Spotlight Report

Some specialists see problems in bishops' policy

Say abuse plan may compromise priests' rights

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 10/11/2002

CINCINNATI - Some of the nation's leading specialists in Catholic Church law have concluded that the ''zero-tolerance'' policy, approved in June by US bishops desperate to contain the burgeoning clergy abuse crisis, contains glaring conflicts with canon law precepts and will inevitably lead to violations of the rights of accused priests.

The canon lawyers, who spoke out as the annual meeting of their peers concluded yesterday, said they are deeply troubled by the central premise of the child-protection rules enacted by the bishops in Dallas, that even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor, no matter how long ago, will result in a priest being permanently removed from ministry. They said that provision violates a canon law principle that, as with the statute of limitations in civil law, says that some crimes occurred too long ago to be punished.

Canon law also says a priest can be removed from ministry only by the Vatican or after a judicial trial, a requirement unaddressed by the Dallas rules, known in the church as norms. And it guarantees confidentiality to priests accused of sexual misconduct, a rule that is difficult to reconcile with the bishops' pledge of transparency and openness when dealing with sex abuse, and with actions by dioceses nationwide to publicize the names of accused priests. ''The norms approved in Dallas ... could easily put bishops in a position where they're violating church law,'' said Monsignor Frederick C. Easton, a canon lawyer and judicial vicar at the Indianapolis archdiocese.

Although the rules have no legal status until approved by the Vatican, he said, they appear to put the bishops on a ''collision course'' with church law.

A Vatican ruling on zero tolerance is expected within a few weeks. News reports have suggested that the rules will win approval, but only on an experimental basis.

The canonists pointed to other examples of how implementation of zero tolerance can lead to violations of the rights of priests:

Canon law treats removal from ministry as the penalty of last resort for priestly misconduct, but it is the only penalty allowed under the Dallas norms;

Canon law requires that accused priests have an opportunity to respond to accusations against them, entitles them to legal counsel, and guarantees them confidentiality during the investigative process. Those principles have rarely been observed as scores of priests have been removed from ministry this year. In Boston, church authorities are only now getting around to developing a guide for priests, reminding them of their rights.

Only 90 minutes of the convention of the Canon Law Society of America, which includes women and lay people, was officially devoted to the issue of clergy sex abuse. Yet many present said the issue dominated the gathering.

Despite their strong concerns, most canonists took great care not to condemn the bishops or the work they did in Dallas, instead offering measured criticisms and affirming the need to address the scandal of abusive clergy.

''We are in no way trying to take a stand of opposition to the bishops or say that Dallas was a disaster,'' said the Rev. Lawrence J. O'Keefe, the new president of the society. ''The issue is, how can we help the bishops?''

Others took pains to emphasize that they do not worry more about the rights of priests than the needs of victims.

''Believe me, our first line of concern is the abused,'' said Monsignor Charles A. Guarino of the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese. ''But there's another group of abused here, and that is priests who not only are being falsely accused and being denied their rights and due process, but even those correctly accused whose rights of defense and other rights have not been protected.''

Guarino views the bishops' policy as a hastily composed stopgap, ''an understandable knee-jerk reaction'' to public fury.

''They had to make a response,'' Easton said of the bishops, ''and I think their hearts were in the right place, but they didn't have enough time to work.

''I think we're on the cusp of coming to realize that we have to maybe look at other ways, canonically, of dealing with the issue. Now, what that's going to be, I don't know.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached

This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 10/11/2002.
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