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Spotlight Report

Not much change in bishops' policies

Accused priests may serve in many cities

By Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent, 2/25/2002

 Sexual abuse policies
PDF documents
  (Require Adobe Acrobat Reader)
Read the policies on sexual misconduct by some of the nation's largest dioces:
Los Angeles
San Antonio
San Bernadino
Trenton and Newark, N.J.

 Bishop's statement
Bishop Wilton Gregory of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement on sexual abuse by priests.
Read the statement

 Priest's admission
A statement made by Rev. Michael Doucette, acknowledging to his parish in St. Agatha, Maine, that he abused a boy.
Read the statement

 On the web
Latest policies by various Catholic dioces:


Orange County, Calif:

Portland, Maine:

Manchester, N.H.:

Worcester, Mass.:

The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a federal office, has a list of state laws on mandatory reporting of suspicions of sexual abuse:

espite announced changes by several US Roman Catholic bishops in their handling of sexual abuse by priests after the scandal in Boston, the written policies of most of the nation's largest dioceses surveyed by the Globe continue to allow priests who have abused children to return to parish work and keep accusations of clergy misconduct secret from police.

Some theologians say they expect the Boston scandal to eventually result in more transparent policies throughout the Catholic Church, including a ban on abusers returning to parishes and a submission of all cases to civil authorities. Bishops in New England, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles have announced changes in light of the widening scandal.

But a survey by the Globe suggests that the changes have not yet reached most dioceses, where bishops set their rules. The newspaper asked for the policies on clergy sex abuse from the 25 largest dioceses outside of Boston, representing half of the nation's 61 million Catholics. Thirteen of the 25 bishops sent policies last week; the rest declined.

Four of the 13 bishops expressly forbid the return of a priest to parish work after a confirmed allegation of sexual abuse of children. That number includes Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which announced such bans Friday. That was already the policy in Chicago and Cleveland. The rest of the 13 either lay down rules for returning priests who have committed abuse to parishes, under supervision, or are silent on the question.

And five of the 13 bishops' policies require all clergy and employees to report allegations of abuse to police or child-protection agencies. These five are Newark, Trenton, N.J., Seattle, Cleveland, and St. Paul-Minneapolis. Two others, Chicago and Los Angeles, specify that the diocese will report, but are silent on whether priests and employees should do so. The rest neither require nor encourage reporting in their written policies.

Portland, Maine, which has agreed to give information on old allegations to prosecutors and has named two priests who admitted sexual abuse, is allowing those two to remain in parishes. Portland's new policy specifically allows a priest who has molested a "single minor" multiple times to stay on the job, but not a priest who has molested multiple children one time each.

"So by their rules now, if you rape many people, that's not OK," said David Gagnon, the victim of one of the priests. "But if you rape one person over and over for three years, that's OK?"

The 13 dioceses disclosing their policies to the Globe were: Los Angeles; Chicago; Detroit; Philadelphia; Newark; Orange County, Calif.; San Bernardino, Calif.; Seattle; Cleveland; St. Paul and Minneapolis; Trenton; Providence; and San Antonio.

Twelve bishops in the 25 largest dioceses outside of Boston declined to make public their policies: New York; Brooklyn; Rockville Centre (Long Island, N.Y.); Galveston-Houston; San Diego; Miami; Brownsville, Texas; Pittsburgh; Hartford; Buffalo; Milwaukee; and El Paso.

The Globe also submitted written questions to the bishops, including whether they still have any priests serving in parishes who have been accused of sexual abuse of children. Only four of the 25 would answer, saying that no active priest has been accused.

In the aftermath of what's happpened in Boston, several bishops have announced reforms, following steps taken by Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law:

In Los Angeles, the largest US diocese with 4 million Catholics, Cardinal Roger Mahony apologized on Friday to victims of sexual abuse by clergy, and released a new policy that a person who has abused a minor "will never return to active ministry."

In Philadelphia on Friday, a spokesman for Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua announced that the church reviewed all files, and two weeks ago fired "fewer than 10" priests who had credible allegations against them in the past 50 years. All were in administrative positions. Another 25 had already been fired, left the priesthood, or died.

In Worcester, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly ordered all clergy, church employees, and church volunteers to report allegations to the state.

In Manchester, N.H., Bishop John B. McCormack, a former auxiliary bishop under Law in Boston, made public the names of 14 priests accused of sexual misconduct with children between 1963 and 1987.

In Portland, Bishop Joseph J. Gerry last week said the diocese would turn over to a district attorney its files on all inactive priests who have been accused. Names of priests will not be made public by the church.

Rev. Wendell Searles, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vt., said Friday he would launch an investigation into accusations of sexual misconduct by Vermont priests that have surfaced in light of publicity about the Boston cases. The complaints, some of which go back to the 1960s, will be reviewed by the diocese's Sexual Misconduct Review Board, created in 1996 to look into other reported clergy sex abuse.

The changes announced by Law and the others followed a series of reports by the Globe Spotlight Team last month detailing how the church had strong evidence of repeated sexual abuse by the Rev. John J. Geoghan for decades and yet he was reassigned to parish work by Law and his predecessors. The series also reported on how the Boston archdiocese has settled legal claims against at least 70 priests over the last decade.

Law, the leader of 2 million Catholics in the fourth-largest US diocese, responded with an apology and a series of escalating policy changes: He has removed priests from parishes because of old allegations of sexual abuse, and he has given their names to the state -- although prosecutors complain that the information given so far, lacking such details as the names of alleged victims, has been too scant to allow proper investigation. The cardinal also has formed a commission to study the problem, and proposed a center for the study of sex abuse.

"I call it the Boston Tea Party of the Catholic Church," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist in San Diego who has testified or worked for plaintiffs in 55 cases where priests were accused of sex abuse. "What has happened in Boston has tipped the scales entirely."

Added Scott Appleby, director of the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism: "This has sent a shock wave through the hierarchy. One runs the risk of being overly optimistic, but I do think the scandals in Boston will be the catalyst for changing church policy across the board."

Although bishops have separate rules in the nation's 178 Roman Catholic dioceses, their association vowed last week to do more in light of Boston's experience. "The attention to this issue also gives me the opportunity to renew the promise of our bishops that we will continue to take all the steps necessary to protect our youth from this kind of abuse in society and in the church," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Many bishops rewrote their policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after a series of scandals involving pedophile priests. Some observers said they believe that the Boston scandal will bring more change because the focus is not just on priestly malfeasance, but on mismanagement and concealment. "The fact that people are openly discussing whether Cardinal Law should resign has frightened church leaders," said Appleby. "They're beginning to get it. They cannot protect priests from the law, and they cannot relocate them in parishes."

National advocates for victims of abuse, meanwhile, say the policies are frequently ignored.

"I don't doubt that they have the policies, but that they're followed," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support and advocacy group. "They're usually drawn up in a crisis, by the PR people and the lawyers, to protect the diocese, not the children."

The policies provided to the Globe agree on their overall intention, as Chicago puts it, to protect "the safety of the children, the well-being of the community, and the integrity of the church."

Where they differ is in their details. Consider the requirement to notify authorities, as it is applied in three states in the upper Midwest. In Ohio, Minnesota, and Michigan, clergy are not required by state law to report suspicions of child abuse.

In the diocese of Cleveland, the policy is clear: "If any person knows or suspects that a person has been subjected to abuse by a cleric, that individual should immediately report ... to the children's services board" or the police, says the policy of Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla.

In St. Paul and Minneapolis, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn's mandatory reporting policy is equally unambiguous. But in Detroit, the policy of Cardinal Adam J. Maida requires clergy, staff, and volunteers only to "observe the provisions of Michigan law." However, Michigan law does not require reporting. A spokesman for the bishop declined to answer questions.

Philadelphia's policy mentions civil authorities, but leaves to the individual conscience the decision whether to report abuse. And state law doesn't require reporting.

"The archdiocese recognizes the right and, in some cases, the duty of an individual to report to civil authorities an allegation of clerical sexual abuse with a minor. The archdiocese will comply with the reporting requirements of Pennsylvania law," says the policy of Cardinal Bevilacqua.

His spokeswoman on Friday said that policy is under review.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all thing," said Mark E. Chopko, general counsel of the conference of bishops.

He said bishops must balance protection of children with protection of priests who are falsely accused. "We have to evaluate, `Should we report this?' If we don't, is anyone in danger?," he said. "Some dioceses say, anything that's going to be referred for medical evaluation, we're going to report, because it would have to be reported by medical personnel in that state anyway."

Eighteen states take the question out of the church's hands, requiring "all citizens" to report suspicions of abuse, according to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, a program of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In New England, these states include only New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Another nine states include clergy on a list of professionals required to report suspicions; Connecticut is the only such state in New England.

The Archdiocese of Boston had opposed, until after the initial Globe articles, adding clergy to the list of mandatory reporters, along with medical and social workers, teachers and day-care workers, and court and police employees. A bill to add clergy has passed the state Senate unanimously and is pending in the House. It also requires disclosure of past allegations. An exception is contained in the proposed law: Clergy would not have to report information gained during the sacrament of penance, or confession, or other confidential communication. The current law strips such confidentiality from other professionals, such as doctors.

The 13 policies reviewed by the Globe show that most of the bishops still allow for the possibility of employing in a parish a priest with a history of sexual abuse of minors. Not so in Chicago. There, when a priest is withdrawn from duty because of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor, "such a cleric may never return to parish ministry or ministry that includes access to minors," according to the policy of Cardinal Francis E. George.

Pilla has a similar policy, but limits it to priests with a specific medical diagnosis: "There is no intention to assign a diagnosed pedophile to parish ministry or ministry with access to children."

Until Friday, Philadelphia and Los Angeles allowed reassignment under supervision and subject to certain limitations.

The policy for Trenton and Newark (they are separate dioceses, but have the same policy) says only that "interim and future assignments shall take into account the interests of all parties, including the church."

San Antonio, as well as St. Paul and Minneapolis, allow reassignment to parish work, at the bishop's discretion. Seattle, Providence, Detroit, San Bernardino, and Orange County don't state a policy on reassignment.

None of the policies requires that children in parishes and parochial schools be taught so-called safe-touch prevention programs, in which children are encouraged to report improper touching by adults.

In answer to the Globe's questions, bishops in Cleveland, Seattle, and Trenton said they had such a program in their schools. San Antonio said it does not. The rest would not answer.

"I'd trade 100 healing Masses for just one safe-touch program in a parochial school," said Clohessy, leader of the survivors network.

Although advocates say they are pleased by the recent policy changes, they expect the ripples from Boston's experience to move slowly. "We still have cases pending," said Sipe, the former priest and retired psychotherapist who has been an expert witness or consultant for plaintiffs in lawsuits alleging sex abuse by priests. "There is the same operation of secrecy, of hiding documents, of having people passed from one place to another. These are not cases from the past. I got another case today."

Bill Dedman can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/25/2002.
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