Archdiocese Unveils Sex-Abuse Code
Local Policy Breaks Little New Ground

By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
July 17, 2003

The Archdiocese of New Orleans on Wednesday unveiled a new code for handling sexual-abuse complaints about priests that formally enacts all the changes that Archbishop Alfred Hughes and his colleagues promised last year in the wake of the Catholic Church's devastating scandal.

The policy, which took effect July 1, was published Wednesday in the archdiocesan newspaper, the Clarion Herald, and was posted on the archdiocese's Web site,

"I commit myself to the implementation of this policy," Hughes wrote in the Clarion Herald in an introductory letter to the area's 488,000 Catholics. Having met and listened to several victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy members, he said, "I have seen their pain and have been privy to their brokenness."

Because the Catholic Church's 195 American dioceses act independently, each must enact locally the reforms the nation's bishops jointly promised American Catholics in meetings last year in Dallas and Washington, D.C.

The local policy breaks little new ground. Rather, it recasts and updates earlier policy by formalizing several changes in practice that Hughes announced last year, some before the meeting in Dallas, as well as some that emerged at that controversial national assembly.

For instance, Hughes last year simplified and combined what had been two separate pathways for handling sex-abuse complaints, erasing an old distinction that depended on whether the complainant was a child or an adult disclosing years-old abuse for the first time.

The policy also formalizes other changes Hughes and other bishops promised in Dallas, chief among them that no priest or deacon who sexually abused a minor will ever work in ministry again.

Because it contains no unexpected changes, the new policy is unlikely to erase the deep skepticism with which some sex-abuse victims view the church's reform efforts.

Even after Hughes had pledged to enact the changes unveiled Wednesday, local victims of clerical sexual abuse organized a support chapter that says the church is still more interested in protecting priests than in healing victims.

Among the policy's highlights is that church officials should encourage adults to go to the police with complaints about past molestations.

When complaints are made on behalf of children -- a much rarer event, in the church's experience -- church officials must obey a new state law obliging them to call police and share the information, the policy says. The state makes an exception when a priest learns about an act of abuse during the sacrament of confession.

The policy calls for criminal background checks of all clergy and lay people who regularly work with children.

It also spells out an internal process in which church officials will rapidly assemble all available facts relating to a complaint of sexual abuse against a priest or deacon. Archdiocese spokesman the Rev. William Maestri said Wednesday that within a week, the investigative file would go to the archbishop and an independent review board, which has only advisory status.

If the archbishop determines evidence is sufficient "to establish the possibility" of an offense, he must remove the priest from office and notify the Vatican. An office there, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has reserved for itself the right to prosecute such priests in church courts, but in all but the most extraordinary cases, the Vatican is expected to yield that right to local bishops when the suspect asks for a church trial.

Unlike secular courts, church courts operate in secret, to the dismay of victims groups.

Under church law, the ultimate penalty is forced "laicization," or being stripped of the priesthood.

If priests or deacons admit the offense or do not contest the charge, they are to be permanently removed from ministry, must live under the supervision of a bishop and will be forbidden to identify themselves as clerics, according to the policy.

In cases in which the charge is determined to be unfounded, "the archbishop will make every effort to restore the good name of the accused," the policy says.

Although the new policy in many ways merely codifies recent practices, it adds one potentially important change: In cases in litigation, the archbishop may suspend the process for making a preliminary investigation and removing a suspect priest.

In most cases, Maestri said, the church hears about a complaint against a priest long before a lawsuit is filed. But in a few cases, a lawsuit is the first notification, and the church may elect not to do an internal investigation if that would interfere with the civil process, he said.

"For instance, some people's testimony might be subpoenaed, or there may be a risk of violating confidentiality," Maestri said.

Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344.


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