Zero Tolerance, Allegations, and Reinstatements
Policy and Practice since the 2002 Dallas Charter and Norms

A White Paper by
October 12, 2010

On June 14, 2002, the U.S. bishops meeting in Dallas approved a Charter and Norms that set up new policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of children by priests. The Norms were revised by the Vatican and became "particular law" of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. on December 8, 2002. The Norms were revised and promulgated again on May 5, 2006. In both the 2002 and 2006 versions, the Norms contain the well-known "zero-tolerance" provision.

Are the U.S. bishops abiding by the policies and procedures that they adopted in Dallas, as revised and codified by the Vatican? This is an important question, because the bishops have received over 3,850 allegations of sexual abuse by priests and deacons since the Dallas meeting. This number does not include allegations received in 2003 and 2010. They have received allegations of sexual abuse of children by 1,376 priests not previously accused.

The bishops themselves insist that "there is no safer place for children in America today than the Catholic Church." See the USCCB's annual reports (which are the sources of the numbers cited above) and the following documents for examples of the bishops' bullish self-assessment:
- What has the Catholic Church done to effectively respond to sexual abuse by church personnel? by Mary Jane Doerr, USCCB (5/6/10)
- Update: Milwaukee church judge clarifies case of abusive priest Father Murphy, by Fr. Thomas Brundage, Catholic Anchor (3/29/10)
- Letter regarding the Children First assessment, by Cardinal Sean O'Malley (3/11/09)
- The Mysterious Gift of Priesthood, by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, The Tablet (6/26/10)

Reinstatements are an especially important aspect of the bishops' recent practice regarding allegations of sexual abuse of children. Indeed, reinstatements appear to be a focus of the so-called causes and context study that the bishops have commissioned for release in Fall 2010. The study's conclusions regarding reinstatement were recently previewed in an interim report. According to a USCCB press release (11/17/09), the causes and context report will conclude that "diocesan responses to charges of abuse by clerics changed substantially over a 50-year period, with decreases in reinstatement and more administrative leave given to abusers in recent years."

Are the U.S. bishops indeed reinstating accused priests less frequently? Are the bishops responding thoughtfully and carefully to the thousands of allegations they have received in recent years?

Zero Tolerance

The zero-tolerance provision that has been church law in the U.S. since 2002 (with the phrase in red added in 2006) reads as follows:

8. When even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accordance with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants.

Unfortunately, the phrase that we have bolded – "after an appropriate process in accordance with canon law" – represents a gaping loophole for bishops, allowing them to keep sex offenders in active ministry for months or years. The "appropriate process" is described in the 2003 Manual for Canonical Processes for the Resolution of Complaints of Clerical Sexual Abuse of Minors, by Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the "promoter of justice" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The process mandated in the Manual may be summarized as follows:

  • A bishop receives a complaint and decides if, on the face of it, it has a SEMBLANCE OF TRUTH. We don’t know the criteria he uses. But there is no investigation at this point. [In the Manual, see p. 2, Step One, Part C, “Initial Evaluation of the Complaint”]

  • If the bishop decides that the allegation does not have the “semblance of truth,” he needs take no action against cleric. [In the Manual, see p. 3, Step One, Part D, Clause 1: “If the diocesan bishop determines that the complaint does not have at least the semblance of truth …”]

  • If the bishop decides the abuse could have happened, he launches a preliminary investigation. The bishop may choose to limit the priest’s activities at this point, but no restrictions are required. [In the Manual, see p. 3, Step One, Section D, Clause 2: “If the diocesan bishop determines that the allegation does have at least a semblance of truth …”]

  • There is no time limit on the preliminary investigation. In fact, the Manual says that there are sometimes reasons for a prudent delay. [In the Manual, see p. 4, Step Two, Part A: “Purpose of the Preliminary Investigation”]

  • When the investigation is done, the investigator submits a report to the bishop. The bishop formulates his opinion of the probability that the priest committed the offense. He submits this opinion and the results of the investigation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At this point, it is still possible for the accused priest to be in active ministry. Church law leaves it to the bishop’s judgment. [In the Manual, see p. 6, Step Three: “Notification of Allegation to the CDF”]

  • If the CDF thinks the priest is guilty, it typically will take one of four actions: it will send the case back to the diocese for a diocesan tribunal; it will try the case in its own tribunal; it will let the bishop impose an administrative penal process; or it will recommend that automatic laicization be imposed. [In the Manual, see p. 8, “Four Possible Actions”]

To summarize, this is the process stipulated by Msgr. Scicluna in his meetings with U.S. diocesan officials in early 2003:

Two obvious conclusions can be drawn: months or years can elapse before a dangerous predator must be removed permanently, with potentially many more children hurt … and it’s likely that many, many allegations are thrown out.

A recent example will show that this is by no means an academic exercise. When a mother went to police and then to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2005 and said that her eight-year-old son had been sexually assaulted by Daniel McCormack, and Cardinal George's administration just left McCormack in ministry until he assaulted several more boys and was arrested again, the cardinal was in full compliance with the zero tolerance provision. See New Leader of U.S. Bishops Faulted in Abuse Case, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, National Public Radio (11/13/07) with audio and links to archdiocesan reports. Daniel McCormack is just one of the many faces of zero tolerance.

See also Catholic Church's "Zero Tolerance" Doesn't Apply to Bishops Who Left Abusers in Ministry, by Rachel Zoll, Associated Press (May 10, 2010).


Example 1: Bishop John McCormack and the Manchester Allegations

Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire's former attorney general, and Bishop John McCormack, of the diocese of Manchester, had a unique relationship. Ayotte's office did an investigation in 2002 and found enough evidence to convict the diocese of child endangerment. Rather than prosecute, the attorney general forced Bishop McCormack into a deal. The attorney general's report and voluminous investigative files were released to the public, and the state investigated the diocese’s handling of child sex abuse allegations every year for four years. The attorney general demanded that the diocese turn over every single allegation of child sex abuse against a diocesan employee. And then the attorney general released all the information to the public. The audit documents are a unique window into how bishops actually are operating under the 2002 reforms.

Bishop John McCormack of Manchester and Attorney General Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Each year, when Attorney General Ayotte reviewed Bishop McCormack's performance under their agreement, she had to reprimand the bishop for compliance problems (see Ayotte letters in 2006, 2007, and 2008). On the 2007 audit, see also Audit Chides Diocese, by Kathryn Marchocki, Union Leader (5/5/07). Each year, Ayotte told McCormack, "Our agreement does not permit the bishop to make a preliminary determination of whether the allegation appears truthful, and removal must take place ‘upon receipt’ of an allegation of sexual abuse. "Here is Ayotte's 2008 reprimand:

This information released by the New Hampshire attorney general also shows bishops throwing out a huge percentage of allegations they receive, and doing no investigations or hasty, inadequate ones. For example:

  • In 2004, Bishop McCormack was forced to hand over to the attorney general 16 allegations of sexual abuse of minors by diocesan and order clerics working in New Hampshire (see the audit results 36 through 61). But he reported to the USCCB that he had received only 8 allegations with the semblance of truth. In other words, he threw out half the allegations upon receipt.

  • In 2005, Bishop McCormack passed on to the attorney general 16 reports of child sexual abuse naming New Hampshire clergy (see the audit results 62 through 83), but he told the USCCB that only 8 reports, or 50% of the total, had the semblance of truth.

Sadly, Bishop McCormack is not the only church leader who is recklessly ignoring a large percentage of new allegations.


Example 2: Cardinal O'Malley and the Boston Allegations

In an unnoticed 2006 report, now removed from the Archdiocese of Boston website, Cardinal Sean O'Malley provided a window into his methods for handling abuse allegations. It turns out that in a two-and-a-half-year period, O’Malley had deemed cases against 45% of the alleged perpetrators not probable and so had kept them in ministry or quietly restored them to ministry. The relevant pages of the report provide numbers but no names. As a result, we know that a surprisingly large number of accused priests were deemed fit for duty in the Boston archdiocese, but we don't know who they are or in what communities they are working.


Other Reinstatements

Sometimes reinstatements are warranted, as in the case of Rev. Ronald L. Bourgault of the Boston archdiocese; see Cleared priest questions process: Alleged victim ID'd wrong man, by Sacha Pfeiffer, Boston Globe (February 28, 2003). But the wholesale reinstatements documented in the Boston archdiocesan report are cause for grave concern, as is an apparent trend to reinstate priests without even interviewing their accusers. The following list provides information on a small sample of the many reinstatements since 2002 that appear to have been done with very little if any transparency. For a helpful survey of the U.S. bishops' post-Dallas reinstatement policies, see U.S. Bishops Quietly Reinstate Accused Priests, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR (March 31, 2010).

Archbishop John C. Favalora - Archdiocese of Miami FL - Rev. Alvaro Guichard
Priest Gives First Mass since Being Reinstated, by Susannah A. Nesmith, Miami Herald (August 25, 2003)

Bishop Ronald Gainer - Diocese of Lexington KY - Rev. William G. Poole
Priest Who Faced Sex Charges Is Reinstated: Lexington Diocese Rejects Allegation He Abused a Boy, by Frank E. Lockwood, Lexington Herald Leader (January 16, 2004)

Rev. Brian Bjorklund - Archdiocese of Detroit - Rev. Brian Bjorklund
Victims Group Puts Spotlight on Priest: Vatican Reinstated Accused Valley Cleric in February, by Tim Sheehan, Fresno Bee (September 1, 2004)

Bishop William Murphy - Diocese of Rockville Centre NY - Rev. William Logan
Suspended Priest Reinstated after Abuse Allegation, by Bill Bleyer, Newsday (September 15, 2006)

Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli - Diocese of Wilmington - Rev. Albert J. Gondek
Priest Is Cleared, Reinstated in N.C.: Del. Man Who Alleges Oblate Abused Him Still Plans Lawsuit, by Beth Miller, News Journal (December 24, 2007)

Bishop Stephen Blaire - Diocese of Stockton CA - Rev. Michael Kelly
Lockeford Priest Reinstated after Abuse Allegations, The Record (March 14, 2008)

Cardinal Sean O'Malley - Archdiocese of Boston MA - Rev. Jerome F. Gillespie
Priest's return to parish work angers advocates: Charges of alleged proposition dropped, by Michael Paulson, Boston Globe (April 26, 2008)

Bishop Richard G. Lennon - Diocese of Cleveland OH - Rev. Patrick J. O'Connor
Reinstated Priest Patrick J. O'Connor Resigns after New Sex Allegation, by David Briggs, Plain Dealer (July 8, 2008)

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk - Archdiocese of Cincinnati OH - Rev. Robert Stricker
Priest Reinstated; Abuse Claim Unproven, by Dan Horn, Cincinnati Enquirer (July 17, 2008)

Cardinal Sean O'Malley - Archdiocese of Boston MA - Rev. James F. Power
Archdiocese closes case, reinstates priest: Church says sex abuse charge against Rev. James Power was unsubstantiated, by Milton J. Valencia, Boston Globe (January 3, 2009)

Cardinal Sean O'Malley - Archdiocese of Boston MA - Rev. Eugene P. Sullivan
Weymouth Pastor Cleared of Sex Abuse Charge, by Jack Encarnacao and John P. Kelly, Patriot Ledge (January 17, 2009)







Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.