Board Toughens Conduct Code for Local Diocese

By Mary McLachlin
Palm Beach Post [Pam Beach FL]
October 19, 2003

PALM BEACH GARDENS -- The board created to deal with sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese of Palm Beach has had no claims to investigate, so it spent its first year rewriting rules and policies to handle future accusations -- and lessen the chance they'll be made.

Diocesan Review Board members have tightened procedures and rules of conduct, giving explicit directions to the diocese's 400 clergy, 1,000 employees and thousands more volunteers on how to behave and how to react to a claim of abuse.

The diocese's new procedures go beyond the national Catholic bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which ousts a priest for a single act of abuse, and call for the immediate firing of any employee or volunteer who admits to or is found guilty of abuse.

The code of conduct also forbids any sort of harassment, bringing the church in line with secular workplaces.

The diocese also has held training sessions for 2,000 people, teaching them how to detect and report sexual abuse, and has paid for more than 2,000 criminal background checks of clergy, employees and volunteers, according to Chancellor Lorraine Sabatella.

She said she wasn't aware of any firings related to the background checks, though an individual pastor could dismiss someone without her knowledge.

As sexual scandal tore through the Catholic Church last year, the National Conference of Bishops ordered every diocese to create standing committees to handle abuse claims, focus on prevention and carry out the charter adopted in Dallas in June 2002.

The Rev. James Murtagh, then interim leader of the Palm Beach Diocese, named a nine-member board in September 2002; one has since resigned, and two others were appointed.

They are diverse in age, experience and professional outlook -- two former teachers, a lawyer, a doctor, a rabbi, a psychiatrist, a marketing consultant, a crime lab director and a child abuse and sex crimes investigator.

It'll be a tough bunch for any alleged abuser to face, says the Rev. Chuck Notabartolo, diocesan vicar general and its representative on the panel.

"This board leans more toward protection of children and vulnerable adults than toward preservation of the clergy," Notabartolo said.

"I think the board would be fair, because it's extremely balanced," said Sgt. Rodney Brimlow, 33, a supervisor in the sexual crimes unit of the Broward County Sheriff's Office who lives in Palm Beach County and is on the panel. "At the same time, this board is tenacious -- they don't want the bottom line only, they want all the details, as well."

The board's basic job is to advise Bishop Gerald Barbarito on the credibility of an accusation and whether someone accused of abuse should be allowed to remain in ministry when there's no clear-cut indication of guilt or innocence.

Notabartolo said board members will take no role in cases already in the courts, such as suits against the diocese involving former bishops Anthony O'Connell and J. Keith Symons and former priests Matthew Fitzgerald and Francis Maloney.

Under diocesan procedures, an initial finding of "at least a semblance of truth" in an accusation against a priest or deacon would result in him being put on administrative leave and asked to voluntarily undergo psychological testing.

The case then would go to a board of cardinals and other officials in Rome. That group would either decide the fate of the accused or refer the case back to the diocese for a ruling.

Nevertheless, the procedures would still allow the bishop to remove anyone from office the moment an allegation is made.

Before the review board was appointed, the diocese already had begun a sexual abuse prevention program created by its excess liability insurance carrier, National Catholic Risk Retention Group.

The "Protecting God's Children" program was taught to about 30 people in the Palm Beach Diocese in August of last year, and each of them then conducted classes throughout the diocese that drew about 2,000 people.

While such efforts went on behind the scenes, the diocese has seen Bishop Sean O'Malley go to Boston and Barbarito arrive from New York.

The diocese has also kept trying to recover from the shock of losing two previous bishops to sex scandals.

With revenue down by 30 percent, the diocese is looking at what programs it might have to eliminate or downsize and what jobs it can combine or eliminate.

Hard decisions lie ahead, Notabartolo said, and the church has to deal with them openly and in good faith.

"If there is anything we have to be right now, it's as transparent as possible," he said. "It's the only way we can get our credibility back."

The diocesan guidelines, procedures and pastoral code of conduct are on its Web site at

Information on Virtus training programs is available on the Web at


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