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Spotlight Report

Sex-abuse monitor favors police tipoffs

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 11/9/2002

The FBI official hired by the nation's bishops to oversee the church's new policy on sex abuse by clergy said yesterday clergy should be required to report all cases of abuse or suspected abuse to civil authorities. But she stopped short of calling on the bishops to add a reporting requirement to the child-protection plan they are expected to approve next week.

''That's up to them to decide,'' said Kathleen L. McChesney, the FBI's number-three official, who was chosen Thursday as executive director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection. The office was created by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in June in response to public outrage over revelations that church leaders had covered up decades of alleged sexual abuse by priests.

Whether clergy should be required to report abuse allegations, like most educators and child-care workers, has been a hotly debated topic as US bishops put finishing touches on their child-protection rules. The rules were drafted at their semiannual meeting in Dallas and are to be voted on at next week's session in Washington, D.C.

The policy approved in June required that every diocese ''report to the public authorities any allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is currently a minor.'' But revisions proposed last week by an eight-person commission of bishops and Vatican officials weakens that language, requiring 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; and 16 others require it of ''any person,'' according to a survey by the Associated Press. Since the survey, Massachusetts has joined the list of states designating clergy as mandated reporters.

In an interview with the Globe, McChesney, 51, a lifelong Catholic, said her office would not call for resignations of bishops judged to have failed to adhere to the abuse policy. Instead, she said, her office would notify the bishops' conference when bishops or dioceses appeared to be in violation of the policy.

Asked whether she would welcome changes to the policy, McChesney declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate for her to weigh in on the bishops' ''work in progress.''

''I don't think I have anything I can add about what I'd like to see or not see. These aren't my norms; they're the norms the bishops developed. So they have to be what they're comfortable with,'' said McChesney, a former Seattle police detective who joined the FBI in 1978 and became executive assistant director of the agency's law enforcement services division.

She also declined to take a stance on whether the policy should include a statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, another controversial issue since most of the hundreds of recent allegations of clergy misconduct nationwide are too old, under traditional canon law rules, to be prosecuted.

''That's really difficult to say, because I do know that memories can fade and it's difficult to prosecute cases that are old,'' McChesney said. ''On the other hand, these are very serious crimes, and so you have to weigh that.''

The proposed revisions would limit prosecution of allegations aired more than 10 years after an alleged victim's 18th birthday, unless the Vatican issues an individual waiver. That alarms many victim advocates, who believe the statute should be lengthened or eliminated since few people who were sexually abused as children come forward until they are adults.

Among the duties of McChesney's office will be to help dioceses implement the child-protection policies, assist the church in ensuring that policies are followed, and produce an annual report detailing which bishops and dioceses have or have not complied. Those reports will be available to the public, she said.

McChesney said she was heartened by a a recent survey of American bishops that found that ''incredible progress had been made since Dallas in June.'' For example, she said, 96 percent of all dioceses said they now have written child-protection policies, 82 percent have procedures for reporting complaints, and 70 percent have assigned a person to hear complaints.

As for whether US bishops will do the right thing in the future, McChesney said she believes they will.

''This is just such a tragic thing for the church that I think there's a universal recognition that the members of the faith are demanding that there's accountability,'' she said.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A4 of the Boston Globe on 11/9/2002.
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