U.S. Bishops Look to Revise Abuse Policy

By David Crumm and Patricia Montemurri
Sun Herald [Washington DC]
November 11, 2003

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The nation's Catholic bishops talked behind the scenes Tuesday about scaling back their strict policies to combat sexual abuse by priests even as they braced for the day, coming soon, when the full scope of the scandal will be publicly revealed.

Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida said bishops likely will revise their strict, zero-tolerance policy, mainly because it defines an incident of sexual abuse so broadly that a priest could be barred from ministry for brief contact with a minor decades ago.

Maida said he didn't know how such a policy change, to be formally discussed at the November 2004 bishops conference, would impact some of the 19 priests from the Archdiocese of Detroit who were barred from publicly working as priests since the scandal broke open early last year.

"We have to learn from our experiences. We may find the charter was a little harder than it should be on that issue," said Maida, about the one-strike-and-out policy, referred to as the charter, which has resulted in hundreds of priests nationwide being barred from ministry.

An update Tuesday from an independent lay review board sparked anxious reactions from many bishops at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The board announced that a full report on the extent of priestly abuse over the last 50 years would be made public Feb. 27.

Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Walter Hurley, the point man in the Archdiocese of Detroit on efforts to combat abuse, said he expects the report will be "absolutely devastating for people to read."

"You have to remember the report will be looking at the impact over 50 years" in every diocese across the country, Hurley said.

Maida agreed that "it will be a traumatic day when this comes out."

Other bishops were clearly agitated by what is to come.

Bishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., snapped at Illinois Appellate Justice Anne Burke, the chair of the review board: "It just keeps going through my mind. What special expertise do a group of lawyers bring to examining this question for us?"

Burke and other conference officials countered that the effort was conducted by many people who were not lawyers, among them university researchers.

Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., bluntly told the board it would be better off to focus on writing about the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests whose only wish is to serve and do good.

Bishops responded with loud applause.

Burke defensively ended the testy session by saying, "The bishops conference asked us to do this work and we're doing it the best we can."

David Clohessy, cofounder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the bishops' reactions were "defensive and worried."

The review board, he said, is "probably being almost as tough as they can be. The real question is, are the bishops being as cooperative as they can be?" Clohessy said.

Backing away from the zero-tolerance policy is wrong, Clohessy said. "It needs to be strengthened and not weakened."

On Monday, SNAP leaders said at least 13 priests were returned to ministry or never removed from the altar, even when victims came forward.

In June, the Archdiocese of Detroit was among the first dioceses nationwide to undergo a compliance audit. To comply with the bishops' guidelines, for example, the archdiocese instituted background checks for all church personnel and volunteers who work with children and the elderly. The archdiocese also established a review panel, comprised mostly of lay people, to assess abuse claims, and agreed that all complaints would be turned over to law enforcement.

It has been difficult to assess the extent of the abuse problem in Michigan. Since March 2002, at least 39 Catholic priests across the state, including 19 from the Detroit archdiocese, have been removed from public ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors, a Detroit Free Press survey found. But those numbers don't reflect priests who were removed from ministry years earlier or priests now dead but once accused of abuse.

Maida stressed, "We are committed to assuring that all young people never will have to be afraid in our churches."

Nevertheless, he said, the one-strike rule, the core of the bishops' strict policy over the past year, may be softened in some way.

Hurley said he does not believe the basic principle behind the one-strike rule will change.

"Those who have abused children - there will never be a place for them in the church," Hurley said. "Even the Holy Father has said this clearly.

"But we are excluding people for any incident and have defined abuse very widely. Some bishops do want to revise those definitions."


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