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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

Strict church standards


THE CATHOLIC Church in the United States should speak with one voice against sexual abuse by the clergy. When leaders of religious orders draft their recommendations for common policies, they ought to follow the tough standard established in June by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Conference of Bishops, in a policy that still must be approved by the Vatican, proposes to remove from ministry all diocesan priests guilty of abuse. The only exception would be priests who are old or otherwise infirm. These could still say Mass privately but not present themselves as priests in public.

The president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, however, said on Thursday that the religious orders will be more lenient to abusers in their ranks. The Rev. Canice Connors said his organization will recommend that abusers be barred from public ministry but still be able to hold administrative positions within religious orders. These orders, such as the Jesuits and the Franciscans, operate autonomously across the country and are not controlled by the bishops.

This policy is fraught with peril for a church coping with the worst scandal in its history in the United States. Without clear restrictions on their duties, priests in the back office could easily be assigned to saying Mass or other public duties. Because members of religious orders are often shifted across the country, one superior's rigorous oversight could be replaced by indifferent supervision and the possibility of a repeat offense.

Officials at the conference have a point that members of religious orders, who take a vow of poverty, have fewer resources than diocesan clergy to make a life for themselves if they leave the ministry. The abuse scandal in the church has its roots in a culture that put the privileges of priests ahead of the protection of children. If the orders insist on keeping abusers in their ranks, they must make sure the clerics do not have access to youngsters.

To that end, the conference should recommend that each order establish a policy against sexual abuse and make it public, especially the section on assignment of clergy. Abusers should never be given positions of responsibility, even outside public view. The conference should also recommend that all 120 orders insist on mandatory reporting of abuse allegations to civil authorities, even in jurisdictions that do not require it.

The Conference of Superiors should also recommend that all orders seek the guidance of review boards composed primarily of lay people, as was mandated by the National Conference of Bishops for each diocese. Nationally, each order should accept monitoring by the national board established by the bishops to make sure that tough policies are followed uniformly.

Almost one-third of Catholic priests in the United States are in religious orders. The Conference of Superiors needs to reassure Catholics that their interactions with all clergy are untainted by the threat of abuse.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 8/10/2002.
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