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Spotlight Report

US bishops vow cooperation with authorities on sex abuse

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/19/2002

Catholic bishops in the United States say they intend to continue turning over to secular authorities the names of priests accused of child sexual abuse, despite an article by a Vatican lawyer suggesting that they should not do so, according to a spokeswoman for the US bishops.

''The bishops are determined to make sure that they don't have people who would abuse children in the priesthood,'' said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the associate director of communications for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ''The church needs to be a safe environment for all Catholics, especially for children, and the bishops will do what has to be done to make sure it is a safe environment.''

Walsh was reacting to comments by the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, dean of canon law at the prestigious Gregorian University in Rome, who yesterday published an article in a Vatican-sanctioned journal, La Civilta Cattolica, saying that ''From a canon law perspective, the bishop and the superior are neither morally nor judicially responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy.'' The Jesuit journal is reviewed before publication by the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

Ghirlanda, a Jesuit priest and Vatican City appeals court judge, also said bishops should avoid telling congregations that their priest has been accused of abuse if the bishops believe the accused priest won't reoffend. And Ghirlanda said he opposed, as a violation of privacy, mandatory psychological testing to determine whether a priest is likely to reoffend.

Ghirlanda's positions fly in the face of the general practice in the United States. Many bishops use psychological testing to evaluate priests, and virtually all seminaries in the US require psychological testing of applicants.

Most US states require clergy, including bishops, to report allegations of child abuse to state officials for investigation, and Walsh said bishops adhere to those requirements. She also pointed out that since 1992 the US bishops' conference has recommended that US bishops ''comply with the obligations of civil law as regards reporting of the incident and cooperating with the investigation.''

Since the clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted in January, numerous bishops in states that do not require reporting of allegations have begun voluntarily to report such allegations under pressure from the public and prosecutors. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, for example, turned over the names of more than 90 priests to area prosecutors. And Massachusetts, which was one of a minority of states that did not require clergy to report allegations of child abuse, changed its law earlier this month to make clergy mandatory reporters.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has said he expects the bishops next month to debate a requirement that all US bishops report allegations of abuse to secular authorities, regardless of what local laws require. And Bishop William S. Skylstad, the vice president of the conference, has repeatedly praised mandatory reporting statutes, saying in an interview last month that ''in our case, in Washington state, we have mandatory reporting, so if something surfaces we report it immediately. For us, it's been a real blessing to be honest with you - it allows a neutral party to come and take a look at an individual case and determine whether it's factual.''

''At their June meeting in Dallas, the US bishops will likely take positions opposite of the three points made by Ghirlanda,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit weekly. ''Any legislation that is binding on all the bishops would have to have the approval of the Vatican, and this article would indicate that the US bishops are going to have to present some strong arguments to convince the Vatican of their position. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop any bishop from immediately implementing whatever the bishops decide in Dallas in his own diocese. Approval from the Vatican is only needed to make the policy mandatory on all bishops.''

Reese said the Vatican is concerned about the rights of accused priests, and may also be concerned about how mandatory reporting laws would play out in countries without well-established legal traditions, citing Cuba, Pakistan, China, Sudan, and Iran as examples of places ''where the rights of the accused may not be respected as they are in Western democracies.''

Pope John Paul II has declared clergy sexual abuse a crime, telling the American cardinals last month that ''The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society.'' But since that time, four Vatican officials have expressed concern about the involvement of law enforcement, according to John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras told a news conference earlier this month that ''For me it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop. We are totally different, and I'd be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests.'' Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of a Vatican council, said in a speech in late April that he was concerned about mandatory reporting laws, saying ''The rapport of trust and the secrecy of the office inherent to the relationship between the bishop and his priest collaborators, and between priests and the faithful, must be respected.'' And Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in a March interview that ''If a priest cannot confide in his bishop because he is afraid of being denounced ... it would mean that there is no more freedom of conscience.''

''What you're seeing is a body of opinion taking shape at senior levels of the Catholic hierarchy that has very serious doubts about the wisdom of so-called automatic reporting, and a clear signal that if the US bishops push that too far, there are going to be problems here [at the Vatican],'' Allen said. ''No one is calling for bishops to disobey the law of the land, but for the state to mandate it is one thing, while for the church to adopt it itself is another.''

Allen said that for many in Rome ''the role of a bishop is not to be an informant for the police, but to be a pastor, and sometimes that might mean informing police, but sometimes that might mean opting not to do that.''

That view has played out here in Boston. Asked once why he had not acted more decisively after a parishioner accused the Rev. John J. Geoghan of assaulting her sons and nephews, Bishop Thomas V. Daily, then of Boston and now bishop of Brooklyn, answered: ''I am not a policeman. I am a shepherd.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 5/19/2002.
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