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Spotlight Report

Bishops say policy not weakened

Officials say goal remains intact; no release of text

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 11/2/2002

The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday denied reports that Vatican-directed changes will weaken the clergy sex abuse prevention policy approved by American bishops in June, saying that church officials remain committed to permanently removing abusive priests from ministry.

''Contrary to many news reports, the Holy See did not reject or even `soften' this work,'' Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said in a statement.

Gregory was reacting to reports in major newspapers, including the Globe, that a commission of Vatican officials and four US bishops may impose a statute of limitations on abuse allegations against priests, tighten the definition of sexual abuse, and require tribunals to ensure due process for accused clerics.

The proposed changes were summarized Thursday by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, one of the bishops on the commission. And as news filtered out that the abuse policy might be weakened, victim advocates voiced outrage and foresaw additional barriers to ousting abusers from the priesthood.

In particular, victim advocates expressed dismay over what was seen as a proposal by church officials to require adherence to an existing canon law provision that allegations of sexual abuse by priests must be brought within 10 years after an alleged victim's 18th birthday.

''Generally, we're just sick over this,'' said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Clohessy believes the vast majority of reported abuse cases allegations would fall beyond the church's statute of limitations.

But church officials insisted that their goal of removing abusers from active ministry remained intact. Aides to several top US prelates, including Cardinals Bernard F. Law of Boston and Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, said yesterday that policies of placing abusive priests on administrative leave no matter how old the offense would remain no matter what policy is eventually agreed to by the conference of bishops and the Vatican.

''The cardinal still believes that our policy [zero tolerance] is in accordance with canon law,'' said Donna Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Law.

Indeed, some church officials saw, in news of the proposed changes, signs that the Vatican had offered a major concession on the statute of limitations question by saying the canon law precept might be waived on a case-by-case basis. That, they said, will ensure that the most notorious offenders would be punished no matter when the abuse occurred.

''The pope's position, that there is no room in the priesthood for someone who would abuse a minor, is still in effect,'' said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference.

Yet confusion remained about the substance of the agreement because the bishops refused to release the text.

''The survivor community is suffering yet again at this news,'' Steve Krueger, a spokesman for the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful, said in a statement. ''This latest information is confusingly incomplete. It throws the process back to square one in some crucial respects, and it keeps survivors and concerned Catholics in a continued state of anxiety.''

Victim advocates also said they fear that even talk of a statute of limitations will discourage victims from coming forward if they believe they were abused too long ago to warrant action by the church.

Victims ''now face the possibility that a bishop's going to say, `I'm sorry, you're 29 years old,''' said Clohessy, ''or they may see the 28-year-old age limit and know they're 45'' and decline to disclose their abuse as a result.

Boston attorney Carmen Durso, who represents about 70 alleged victims of clergy sex abuse, said all of his clients' claims would fall outside the church's statute of limitations, under the reported revision to the policy.

And a statute of limitations could dramatically alter the cases of many of the roughly 300 priests who have been removed from ministry this year for abuse allegations, including 24 priests from the Boston Archdiocese who in many cases were removed from their parishes based on allegations of abuse from decades ago made by men who are now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

One accused cleric who fits that profile is the Rev. William L. Butler, a Revere priest who was placed on leave in August after an abuse allegation dating to 1966 was made against him. In Butler's case, the house where the alleged abuse is believed to have taken place has burned down and several family members who could have been potential witnesses are dead.

For Boston attorney Michael L. Altman, who represents Butler, there is no question how the archdiocese should handle Butler's case in light of the proposed revisions to the bishops' policy: ''It should be dismissed,'' said Altman, who said he intends to ask Boston church officials to revoke Butler's administrative leave and return him to his parish.

James F. O'Brien, who represents six suspended Boston priests, said he and his clients are heartened by the reports that a statute of limitations would be applied. He said the alleged abuse by four of the six Boston priests he represents, as well as a priest he represents in New York, took place beyond the statute of limitations.

''At the very least, these men know that they will not be laicized because of the allegations against them. That is a great relief to them,'' he said. Laicization is the process of removing an individual from the priesthood entirely.

Canon law specialists said that even if must be revised, the proposed policy leaves a great deal of discretion for handling abuse allegations in the hands of bishops.

Even with the proposed changes, the policy would allow bishops, without Vatican approval, to remove from active ministry abusive priests, even if their alleged abuses fall outside the statute of limitations. That could be done by allowing abusers to remain in the priesthood but removing them from parish assignments that put them in contact with children.

''I've seen nothing that would inhibit power of bishops to ensure that a problem priest does not have access to children,'' said Charles M. Wilson, executive director of the San Antonio-based St. Joseph Foundation, which advises people who believe their rights have been violated by the Catholic Church.

Clohessy takes a much darker view. ''History has shown that whenever there's wiggle room bishops act cowardly and don't take decisive steps to protect kids, and when there's a grey area bishops side with their priests,'' Clohessy said.

''We all know that the glare of public attention is very fleeting and the clerical culture of secrecy and self protection is very enduring,'' he added, ''and I think it is horribly risky and naive to claim that because of a few months of embarrassing disclosures that the fundamental behavior of bishops will forever and radically be changed.''

Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V. Robinson of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 11/2/2002.
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