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Spotlight Report

Religious orders won't oust priests

Stance on abuse from bishops' policy

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 8/9/2002

PHILADELPHIA - The leaders of the nation's Catholic religious orders, which count among their members one-third of all priests in the United States, said yesterday they are unwilling to cast priests who engage in sexual abuse out of the ''family'' of the clergy, though they would bar them from ministries that involve contact with children.

Officials of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the umbrella group for religious orders, meeting here for its annual national conference, said they support the spirit of a national child protection policy approved by American Catholic bishops in June. They also stressed their deep regret at the way the clergy sex abuse crisis has ''scarred the church and raised profound and fundamental questions about its moral leadership.''

But they said that while they will bar guilty priests from public ministries, they will, in accordance with the church's tradition of forgiveness and reconciliation, seek to find administrative or other roles for the offenders within the church.

The Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan priest and president of the conference, said leaders of the religious orders ''want to participate in any way in supervising those who did this in the past and do everything possible to prevent it in the future.''

The bishops, at their June meeting in Dallas, voted to require that priests found to have committed even one act of abuse be barred from any form of ministry, from parish service to soup kitchen work. But it remains murky whether religious order priests - such as Jesuits, Benedictines, and Marists - would be governed by the bishops' policy.

Religious order priests account for about 15,000 of the 46,000 priests in the United States and may not work in ministry in a diocese without the permission of the bishop. In the Boston Archdiocese, sex abuse claims involving religious order priests routinely name the archdiocese as a defendant. But, for the most part, religious order priests are overseen by their own superiors or provincials, and the orders have a long tradition of independence.

While diocesan priests are often assigned to parishes in individual dioceses, religious order priests frequently work in specialized ministries, organized in provinces defined by the religious orders and sprawling across several states. Or they may be in missionary work, which can scatter them around the globe. That autonomy and geographic diversity make it difficult to ensure that religious orders are holding abusers accountable, many abuse victims and their advocates say.

Indeed, conference officials acknowledged yesterday that they do not know how many of the more than 300 religious orders in the United States have policies in place to monitor and discipline abusive priests. Nor do they know how many religious order priests have been removed from ministry because of incidents of abuse. And because the conference has no enforcement powers, it has no mechanism in place to find answers to those questions, short of polling each order individually.

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, whose request to address the conference during its four-day meeting was rebuffed, said at a news conference yesterday that the comparative lack of accountability for religious order priests represents a gaping loophole in the church's child protection plan.

''They've said it themselves: There will always be a place in their family for their fellow brothers, regardless of their sins or crimes,'' said SNAP board member Mark Serrano. ''By talking about their `family' and not wanting to kick anyone out of their family, I think that's a statement of their indifference to victims.''

Serrano and other SNAP members also said that while religious orders should be permitted to develop their own child protection plans, their poor track record of monitoring and disciplining abusers means that the job of implementing those plans should be left to independent watchdog groups, such as coalitions of social service agencies, professionals, and law enforcement officials.

Connors said the Conference of Major Superiors will consider setting up a national advisory board, modeled after the one established by the bishops' conference, to implement child protection plans.

The main challenge for religious orders, Connors said, is how to make a national policy work, given the many kinds of orders and their varied traditions, and ''how we can set up and make effective'' the policy guidelines, given the unique communal makeup of religious orders.

Religious order priests, unlike diocesan priests, take a vow of poverty, so they are totally dependent on their orders for their income and livelihood, a key reason why religious orders say they are reluctant to expel abusers from the priesthood entirely.

The ''very nature of our identity'' is different than that of diocesan priests, said the Rev. Ted Keating, a Marist priest and executive director of the conference.

''There are many people who've made bad decisions or gotten involved in inappropriate situations or done something horrible, but maybe that person is sick himself or was abused as a child,'' added Marita Eddy, a spokeswoman for the conference. ''Are you really going to throw that person out? That would violate what we believe in, which is repentance and a chance for reconciliation. We believe in the redeemability of a person.''

Connors also rejected a proposal by the bishop's conference that abusive priests be confined to monasteries, saying that religious orders ''do not exist in order to become a refuge for priests who are unassignable.''

Instead, he said, ''special residences'' could be established to house abusive priests. Three such facilities already exist, one in New Mexico and two in St. Louis.

This week's conference, which drew about 170 religious order priests and a dozen members of the media, is markedly different from the bishops' conference, a highly publicized event that drew more than 300 of the country's bishops and about 750 reporters. While the bishops' conference resembled a national political convention, the gathering of religious orders, held in a hotel on the edge of suburban Philadelphia, has the look and feel, as one conference staff member observed, of a Kiwanis convention. And unlike the bishops, who attended the Dallas meeting in their clerical garb, the priests meeting in Philadelphia chose casual wear.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/9/2002.
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