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Spotlight Report

Mandate to report clergy is altered

Policy on abuse appears undercut

By Michael Rezendes and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 11/5/2002

 The policy
Compare revised version, original
A special commission of US cardinals and Vatican officials appears to have significantly undercut the clergy sexual abuse policy approved by American bishops in June by eliminating a requirement that church officials report allegations of abuse to civil authorities.

The US bishops, meeting in Dallas, enacted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that said any diocese ''will report to the public authorities any allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is currently a minor.'' But revisions to the policy proposed by the special commission and released yesterday do away with that mandate.

The requirement that bishops report all such allegations was seen as critical by advocates for victims who say church authorities have, in the past, often kept cases of abuse secret for so long that no criminal prosecution was possible.

The proposed change would require only that bishops ''comply with all applicable laws with respect to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities.'' As of March, the laws of only 26 states required such reporting: 10 states specifically require reporting by clergy; 16 others require it of ''any person,'' according to a survey by the Associated Press.

Massachusetts has, since the survey, joined the roster of states that specifically include clergy on a list of professions required to report allegations of child sex abuse to the state Department of Social Services.

''This is a huge backtracking. It's a huge and shameful retreat,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''It goes back to the longstanding practice of doing the absolute bare minimum.''

To observers like Clohessy, the risks of requiring only that bishops follow local reporting requirements is illustrated by Cardinal Bernard F. Law's handling of the issue in Boston.

In early 1993, in the wake of an abuse scandal involving the Rev. James Porter of the Fall River Diocese, Law made this promise: ''We pledge to report such incidents to civil authorities in accordance with the law and to alert complainants of their right to do this in all other instances.''

But there was no requirement that clergy make such reports at that time, and the church was actively supporting a church exemption from the law requiring professionals, including teachers and social workers, to report child sexual abuse. In many instances, clergy sexual abuse of children in the Boston Archdiocese went unreported.

In a four-page news release explaining the proposed revisions to the Dallas charter, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said the revised policy on reporting alleged sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities is ''consistent with the original norms'' approved by bishops in January. But advocates for victims cited the revision as one of the most significant inconsistencies between the proposals released yesterday and those approved by American bishops in June.

''We feel that the linchpin of protecting children in the future is the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities, so they can do their investigations,'' said Joseph Gallagher, cofounder of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. ''It appears the Vatican may be unwilling to do that.''

Critics of the policy revisions released yesterday also pointed to a provision that would let stand - unless a bishop chooses to appeal to the Vatican for a waiver - a canon law requirement that claims of clergy sexual abuse of a minor be made before an alleged victim reaches 28 years of age. Some canon law specialists said the provision left unclear whether a bishop would be able to suspend a priest faced with an accusation falling outside the statute while waiting for permission to override it.

The Dallas policy sought to impose strict sanctions on offending priests, no matter how old an allegation of abuse might be.

''They're going to have to clear all this up next week,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, who edits the Jesuit weekly magazine America. The US bishops meet next week in Washington to discuss the revisions.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse find the notion of a statute of limitations of any kind objectionable, contending that many of those who suffer sexual molestations are psychologically ill-equipped to report the abuse until they reach midlife.

Another proposed revision, involving the power of lay panels to review abuse cases, also drew some criticism yesterday. The Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that formed in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis that erupted in January, said the revisions apparently downgraded the role of lay boards.

The Dallas policy said the boards would provide an ''assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests.'' The proposed revision provides only that the boards will advise ''the diocesan bishop in his assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors.''

''The laity have a wealth of time, talent, and treasure to offer diocesan bishops as they attempt to address the sexual abuse crisis,'' said Steve Kruger of Voice of the Faithful, criticizing the mixed commission for ''reducing the proposed role of a collaborative hierarchy/lay board to a minor advisory role, and then only after an assessment has alredy been made by a bishop.''

Some canon law specialists, along with officials of the bishops conference, saw positive elements in some of the proposed revisions, saying they work to underscore the authority of local bishops to discipline abusive priests - and hammer home the expectation that bishops will act aggressively to do just that.

''I see nothing in the new norms that would really restrict, in any way, the ability of a diocesan bishop to deal with offenders to assure that they wouldn't come into contact with children,'' said Charles Wilson, an authority on canon law with the San Antonio-based St. Joseph Foundation, which advises those who believe their rights have been violated by the Catholic Church. ''Nothing really has changed in that regard.''

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, stressed the revisions retain the mandate that those priests found to be abusers will never serve again in parish work or other ministerial roles.

''This, I think, will satisfy most people,'' she said. ''It says, `You'll never work in this town again. You'll never work as a priest again.'''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/5/2002.
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