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Study faults Melkite church
Small, scattered diocese says it is tackling problem
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/11/2004
When a team made up largely of retired FBI agents crisscrossed the nation to examine how well the Catholic Church is doing at protecting children from sexual abuse, the auditors gave high marks to all four Roman Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts, even commending the scandal-tarnished Archdiocese of Boston for its outreach and training programs.
But the auditors were less impressed by the work of the one Eastern rite Catholic diocese in Massachusetts, the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, which the auditors said last week is one of just 19 dioceses around the country that are not yet complying with the church-approved "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."
The Melkite diocese, which despite its name is neither Greek nor based in Newton, has declined to cooperate with a nationwide study of the scope and nature of abuse by Catholic priests and has failed to perform background checks on its employees or to train its priests, deacons, parents, and others who work with children to spot signs of abuse.
In a lengthy interview Thursday at the eparchy's headquarters in Roslindale, the diocese's two top officials insisted that they are fully committed to protecting children from abuse. They said that, in the 28-year-history of the Melkite eparchy, they are aware of only one instance in which a minor was sexually abused by a priest, and in that case, which they learned of three years ago, they immediately removed the priest from ministry.
But the officials, Bishop John A. Elya and the Rev. Andre St. Germain, expressed some reservations about the national regulations approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. St. Germain said the rules have proven cumbersome and complex to implement for one of the more unusual Catholic dioceses in the country: a small collection of 35 churches and 47 priests dispersed through 18 states and administered with an annual diocesan budget smaller than that of many Roman Catholic parishes.
St. Germain said, despite the concerns, the Melkite diocese expects to soon begin running criminal background checks on its workers. But he noted that unlike Roman Catholic dioceses, which are located in one city or region, the nationwide Melkite diocese must find a way to do background checks on employees in multiple states and in a way that honors privacy in a small organization. He said a Melkite priest who is a former police detective is trying to set up a mechanism for running the checks with the FBI.
St. Germain said the diocese, with an annual budget of roughly $700,000, cannot afford to develop or purchase its own abuse-prevention training program and has now decided instead to ask for assistance from Roman Catholic dioceses in the parts of the country where Melkite churches are located. (In Boston, the Roman Catholic archdiocesan spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said in an interview, "We'd certainly allow our brother and sister Melkite Catholics to participate.")
Although the diocese is headquartered in Boston -- its name comes from the fact that when founded, it was based in Newton -- the biggest concentration of Melkites in the country is in the Detroit area, and the largest church is in North Hollywood, Calif.
Diocesan officials -- and there are just the bishop, the priest, a secretary, and a 90-year-old part-time chancellor -- clearly have some reservations about elements of the national program. St. Germain said he is concerned that the training programs teach children to "watch out for Father," and that some of the rules in place in Roman Catholic dioceses could be perceived as prohibiting some of the physical expressiveness -- including hugging and kissing -- that is common among the eparchy's priests and parishioners, most of whom come from Lebanon, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East.
"At coffee hour, just about every kid will come over and want a hug or a kiss -- our parishes are very demonstrative and tactile," St. Germain said. "It's not unusual for the Easterner. If you told the priest he positively, absolutely had to keep his hands off, there'd be misery in that parish."
St. Germain, who is among a minority of Melkite priests who are married, said he is "appalled" by the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, saying, "I have grandchildren, so it hits home." He said the Melkite church has a strict code of conduct, imposed in the mid-1990s, for priests that prohibits children in rectory rooms and requires that doors be open when adults are meeting with minors.
Elya said he does not believe the Melkite diocese is immune to scandal, saying, "We are part of America, and whatever happens to America will happen to us." But he said he has a lay review board with lawyers, judges, and psychologists, and he pointed out that in the one case to confront the Melkite diocese thus far, he immediately removed the abusive priest from ministry and notified Rome of the case. He said the priest is now writing religious books and is prohibited from having contact with minors. St. Germain said the eparchy will not participate in the nationwide survey of abuse, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, because the questionnaire is too detailed.
"The bishop was in the hospital having bypass surgery, so it was me, and I had no access to those records. And when the chancellor came around and we started looking, we could find very little about it," St. Germain said. "So look, one guy is not going to affect their study."
Eastern Catholic churches were overrepresented among the list of dioceses not yet complying with the bishops' charter, according to the audit released last week. Of the 19 dioceses out of compliance, eight were Eastern Catholic churches. "All the Eastern Catholic churches are relatively small, but they share with the Roman Catholic church a concern that the credibility of the ministry is at stake," said the Rev. Joseph Loya, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, who researches Eastern Christianity. "No one is sloughing this off."
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.