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Spotlight Report

Despite new policy, bishops say work just beginning

Staffing tribunals could wind up as 18-month project

By Michael Rezendes, Globe Staff, 11/14/2002

Bishop Wilton Gregory (left) and Cardinal Bernard Law both said they were pleased with the revised church sexual abuse policy. (AP Photo)

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US bishops OK abuse policy

WASHINGTON - US Catholic bishops yesterday hailed their agreement on a national clergy sexual abuse policy as a major step toward ending the scandals that have plagued the church. But they also acknowledged that, in many ways, their work has just begun.

After joining in the near-unanimous vote on revisions to the child protection plan adopted in Dallas five months ago, several of the nearly 300 bishops meeting here questioned how the policy will work. They also said that some issues may have to be revisited when bishops review the policy in two years.

Bishop Thomas G. Doran of the Rockford, Ill., diocese said the church tribunals that must, under the revised policy, hear the cases of accused priests have yet to be established. The process of organizing and staffing the tribunals could take up to 18 months, he said.

Doran and other top church officials added that it is unknown how long the tribunals will take to hear cases. Nor is it clear how long bishops will have to wait to obtain permission from the Vatican to discipline priests accused of molesting minors many years ago. The new policy requires Vatican approval to lift the church's statute of limitations, which generally limits prosecution of cases of abuse of minors after the accuser turns 28.

''The jurisprudence isn't clear here,'' said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. ''I think we ought to give it a chance to operate.''

But victims of clergy sexual abuse said they remain skeptical of assertions by bishops that the revisions approved yesterday and sent to Rome for final approval do not weaken the policy adopted in Dallas. They worry that the revisions have introduced a complex judicial process for hearing allegations against priests, and also reduced the role of review boards controlled by the laity that were, under the Dallas policy, to consider allegations of sexual misconduct and recommend sanctions.

''My fear is that victims will be discouraged from coming forward and in two years the bishops will be able to say, `See? It's all over,''' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Bishops who helped write the revisions, including Doran and George, said the changes preserve a ''zero tolerance'' policy toward abusive priests. Bishops, they said, are still free to remove accused priests from active ministry and to deny assignments even to those priests who have been exonerated by the tribunals, if a bishop remains convinced that a cleared priest poses a threat to children.

''No priest who has ever committed an act of sexual abuse will ever be put in active ministry,'' said Bishop Joseph Galante of the Dallas diocese.

But victims noted that the authority of bishops to unilaterally remove accused priests from active ministry without the backing of Rome or a tribunal verdict is discretionary and subject to appeal. And Bishop James M. Moynihan of the Syracuse diocese warned of the potential for long delays as the cases of allegedly abusive priests move through the untested tribunal system. ''Justice delayed is justice denied,'' he said.

The revisions approved yesterday call for all allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors to be referred to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has the option of taking administrative authority over the case. But most allegations against priests are expected to be heard by church tribunals staffed with fellow clerics.

Other questions about the policy also remain. The bishops have yet to address concerns about how to best monitor abusive priests who are removed from ministry but who are not subject to criminal prosecution and thus free to mix with the laity, and children, without supervision. To address this concern, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore has published the names of credibly accused priests on his archdiocesan Web site but his action has not been adopted by other bishops.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law, during the course of yesterday's debate, said that more consideration must be given to priests who admit their abuse and are removed from active ministry but are also repentent, submit to treatment, and do not wish to be permanently removed from the priesthood.

In a Globe interview, Law elaborated: ''I do think that one of the tasks that we have as a church now is, on the one hand, maintaining our position that no one who has been guilty of an act of sexual abuse of a minor may exercise public ministry. But at the same time, are there other ways, other options, that might be provided for a priest that would not necessitate laicization but would ensure that he is not a risk, that he is in a secure environment, but would be able to spend his life and in penance in a community setting?''

Michael Rezendes can be reached at

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 11/14/2002.
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