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Spotlight Report

Bishops' proposals are seen as starting point for debate

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 06/05/02

A child protection plan proposed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops sparked heated debate across the church yesterday, as bishops, lay activists, and scholars said they would push for changes when the bishops vote on the policy next week in Dallas.

The bishops' draft "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" was welcomed by many, who said the document suggests that the bishops finally appear ready to recognize the damage done over the last several decades to thousands of children by the minority of priests who have been sexually abusive.

But two aspects of the bishops' proposal proved controversial: their plan to allow priests who have committed only one act of abuse in the past to keep working for the church, and their decision not to suggest any action against bishops who have failed to remove abusive priests from ministry.

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, vice president of the bishops' conference, called the draft "a good start," but said in a telephone interview that he would like to see the proposal toughened with a stronger apology on behalf of bishops and a stricter zero-tolerance policy.

"The apology could be even stronger -- I think it doesn't hurt for us to say that we need to ask for forgiveness, and that we have made mistakes," he said.

Skylstad said he expects a debate in Dallas about the zero-tolerance policy. The draft proposes that the bishops seek to defrock any priest who sexually abuses a minor in the future, but only those priests who have abused a minor more than once in the past.

"Our own practice [in Spokane] has been that we have taken the one-strike-and-you're-out approach," Skylstad said. "We need to be mindful that we are a forgiving church, a reconciling church, but from my perspective, given the level of anger and the high expectations that the laity have of priests, what I'm hearing is that people are pretty strong about not allowing such a person back into ministry."

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who chaired the committee that drafted the proposal, defended the decision to give a second chance to some offenders.

"Treatment, and the power of Christian conversion, has made a difference in some cases," Flynn said. "However, ministry that involves contact with children or young people will always be out of the question" for abusive priests, he said.

A prominent seminary rector who has been asked to address the bishops in Dallas next week said the bishops need to go much further in holding themselves accountable.

"Not covered here is the question of the bishops themselves, and in listening to a lot of Catholic laypeople the last few weeks, that is a particular sore point," said the Rev. Donald P. Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. "If it can be demonstrated that a bishop knowingly placed a priest who they knew was a danger with children, that is a serious breach and the bishop would be unfit for pastoral leadership. There is no restoration of trust until that is addressed."

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston considers the proposal a good start, but would like to see it strengthened in Dallas, according to Law's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne. Coyne hailed the proposal for requiring mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse to civil authorities, for offering an apology to victims, and for calling for a ban on most courtroom confidentiality agreements. But he said archdiocesan officials are concerned about how passage of the policy would affect Boston's even stricter policy, which removes from any job in the archdiocese any priest who has ever abused a child.

A number of people who have been critical of the church's response welcomed the bishops' steps.

"All the things I hoped for are in there," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the Theology Department at Georgetown University. "It's comprehensive, it addresses the pain and sorrow of the victims, and it attempts to put in place a uniform national policy that is transparent and for which the bishops are accountable."

And the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly, said, "This is a tough charter, which some bishops and priests may have a hard time accepting ... Most of the charter can be implemented voluntarily without delay by the bishops in their own dioceses. If this happens, the first chapter of this ugly story will finally be closed and the bishops can begin rebuilding confidence by opening other aspects of the church to lay involvement, transparency, and accountability."

Some victim advocates, however, were critical.

"They want to talk tough about zero tolerance and one-strike-and-you're-out, but they also want to hem and haw and backtrack and leave tons of wiggle room," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Phil Saviano, the group's New England director, wants a stronger zero-tolerance policy, saying, "If a man would do this to a child once, I'm convinced that under the proper circumstances, given the opportunity, he's going to do it again. The bishops are making a big mistake in taking that chance."

Jeffrey R. Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented sexual abuse victims for years, agreed.

"For them to even contemplate a plan to give a priest a second opportunity to slay a soul is an outrage," he said. "They are clueless and will continue to be in crisis. And we will continue to exert external pressure on them to crack this medieval belief that they can live by rules and laws that are different from everyone else."

An organization representing priests was also critical, concerned about the bishops' proposal to laicize large numbers of priests.

"What I am hearing from priests is that they are very nervous about the laicization policy and wonder whether the bishops are bowing to media pressure and political pressure to employ `zero tolerance' policies," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. "The priests feel that the bishops are once again placing the burden and focus on the priests instead of assuming responsibility for their own mishandling of these cases. What will be the penalty for a bishop who does not follow the policy or who mishandles a case administratively? "

But others were cautiously supportive.

"Many parts are positive and good," said attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who has represented numerous victims of sexual abuse by clergy, and who is scheduled to question Law about the issue today in a deposition.

Toni Troop, spokeswoman for Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts victim advocacy group, said, "They made a very sincere effort at reaching out to and including victims at every stage of the process."

Svea Fraser, a leader of Voice of the Faithful, a Wellesley-based reform group, called the document "a wonderful draft. It's certainly a move in the right direction, and it's important for us to be supportive of the bishops as they do this."

One group, Dignity/USA, an organization representing gay Catholics, said it was pleased that the proposal did not describe sexual orientation as a factor in the crisis. But the issue of homosexuality is not going away. Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine, a conservative journal, sent an e-mail to his readers yesterday describing the "real problem" as "predatory homosexuals in the priesthood."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/5/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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