Diocesan Panel Letting All Abuse Cases Be Heard
By Kathleen Mellen
Hampshire Gazette [Northampton MA]
Downloaded May 7, 2003
Wednesday, May 7, 2003 -- A local leader of a Catholic lay group dedicated to promoting reform within the church said she is pleased that the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese is reaching out to victims of priest sexual abuse - even those who have elected to file suit against the church.
At a recent meeting between members of the local chapter of the Voice of the Faithful and Bishop Thomas L. Dupre of the Springfield Diocese, Dupre outlined the rights of those alleging sexual abuse by priests to tell their story before the Commission to Investigate Improper Conduct of Diocesan Personnel, commonly called the Misconduct Commission.
Specifically at issue were the rights of anyone who has filed a lawsuit alleging abuse by a priest to appear before the diocese's decade-old commission.
The matter had caused some confusion among regular church-goers, and even among those within the hierarchy of the church, some of whom had thought the commission was closed to those who had taken their cases to court.
But Ann Turner, spokeswoman for the local Voice chapter, said she was pleased to discover that the commission is open to all people alleging abuse, regardless of their participation in legal proceedings against the church.
"The diocese is treading a very fine line: trying to reach out to the victims but protect the church's resources," said Turner.
Turner called the commission "part of the diocese's compassionate outreach to victims," and said that all should have access to the commission, regardless of their part in litigation against the church. "It's important for victims to tell their story," she said.
Turner said the bishop assured her group that even people engaged in litigation against the diocese can, in fact, come before the commission.
But, diocese spokesman Mark Dupont said, "the bishop has drawn a line," saying people involved in a suits will not be allowed to bring with them an attorney who is actively involved in the litigation.
"That changes the purpose" of the meeting, said Dupont. "It's not a legal body."
The commission, which was established by the Springfield Diocese in 1992, is designed to investigate all charges of misconduct by any diocese employee or volunteer, according to Laura Failla Reilly, director of counseling and prevention services for the diocese.
Reilly, who has worked for the diocese since November, said even some members of the commission were mistaken about the rules for participation, but that the rules have since been clarified.
According the commission's statement of confidentiality, the "committee's policy of confidentiality is not designed to discourage any person who provides information to the committee from providing that same information to the Department of Social Services or law enforcement authorities if they feel it is appropriate."
In fact, Reilly said, the commission is required by law to report certain allegations to the district attorney's office.
While the Springfield Diocese's commission is 10 years old, according to Dupont, all dioceses are now required by the rules of the Convention of Bishops, held last year in Dallas, to have such a commission.
Dupont said that when the local commission was set up, no priests were appointed to it because the diocese wanted to create a setting in which victims would be comfortable in reporting abuse.
"We wanted it to be victim-friendly," explained Dupont.
Reilly said rules established at the Dallas convention require that a priest be appointed to a commission hearing if "substantive allegations" are found.
Turner, who said she welcomed the clarification about the commission, characterized the group's meeting with the bishop as "congenial and productive."
Turner said, "We wanted to build a bridge, to reach out to the diocese. We don't want the bishop to see us as adversaries."
Turner founded the local Voice of the Faithful chapter that has been meeting since September in St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Northampton.
"We would hope that the sexual abuse cases could be settled speedily and justly. Time is of the essence," said Turner. "As the months go by for some victims, it can be increasingly painful to feel that their cases are not being heard.
Dupont and Reilly both said the diocese has taken proactive measures to address the needs of the victims.
"We are really trying to be good stewards," said Dupont.
Kathleen Mellen can be reached at email@example.com.
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