Bishops Face Decision on 'Zero Tolerance'

By Richard N. Ostling
AP Religion Writer, carried in Atlanta Journal-Constitution [United States]
Downloaded March 1, 2004

The dismaying national reports on molesters among Roman Catholic clergy add a new layer of complexity for U.S. bishops as they look ahead to their next major decision in fighting sex abuse--whether to renew what's known as their "zero tolerance" policy for abusers.

The bishops commissioned a study released Friday that found 4,392 priests were accused of abuse from 1950 to 2002, and plan to debate at their June meeting either keeping or revising the toughened abuse policy they adopted at the height of the crisis two years ago.

The chief matter is "zero tolerance," the rule that priests guilty of even one abusive act with a minor must be permanently removed from active ministry and, in most instances, eventually dismissed from the clergy.

While pressure from the public and victims to keep the policy in place is intense, some in the church want changes. Priests and bishops have argued that kicking out abusers without rehabilitation is too harsh, and merely cuts an untreated abuser loose on society.

The survey conducted for a church watchdog panel by John Jay College of Criminal Justice makes things even trickier, because it found a steep drop-off in abuse cases in the 1990s, when bishops began crackdowns but before zero tolerance went into place.

Meanwhile, a new Vatican report by non-Catholic experts on therapy with abusers says zero tolerance is too harsh. An official with the sponsoring Vatican agency said bishops shouldn't abandon a sinner but apply punishment and "return him to a meaningful role in the church."

The U.S. policy "sacrifices priests for the sake of the bishops," complains the Rev. Joseph Fessio, publisher of Ignatius Press. "From a human point of view it is unjust. From a Christian point of view it is inconceivable." He thinks the purpose of policy "is not to protect the reputation of bishops, who deservedly lost it, but to do the right thing now."

Victims' advocates agree the church should do the right thing _ but they feel strongly that's keeping the policy in place.

They argue that the new national count of abusers is a clear underestimate, partly because many victims wait years or even decades to come forward.

John Jay researchers agreed. They said dioceses examining individual cases of offenders estimated there may be 3,000 additional victims who have not filed claims.

That means that, instead of a 1970s peak and a steep decline in abuse cases in the 1990s, the true picture is closer to one of molestation continuing unabated, victims claim.

Susan Archibald of The Linkup, a national abuse survivors' group, says "the bishops as leaders should send a strong message that if you harm the young or vulnerable, there's no place for you within our ranks."

Bishops must also consider morale among their priests.

The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, representing 27,000 U.S. clergy, thinks abusers must be removed from active ministry. But "simply dismissing them from the clerical state and putting them on the street" is cruel.

He also says children would be safer if miscreants were kept under church supervision, a point made by the Vatican's therapy consultants. That's a strong argument, says the Rev. Thomas Reese of America magazine, but bishops face serious legal liability if a sidelined priest does further harm.

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a onetime canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy turned victims' advocate, says the church's internal legal system has never protected the due process rights of accused priests, and "right now the morale of priests is at rock bottom, if not lower."

Doyle also says the system can't effectively handle abuse charges against bishops--a current problem in the Springfield, Mass., and Albany, N.Y., dioceses.

A separate report released Friday on causes of the abuse crisis said the charter's "expansive and somewhat amorphous" definition of abuse forces drastic punishments without considering the seriousness of the offense.

Doyle says this "has terrorized the priests." And the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, conservative editor of First Things magazine, sees a disparity between the way accused priests and malfeasant bishops are treated.

"If a priest who patted a boy on the butt 30 years ago is kicked out of ministry by a bishop who allowed priests to sodomize young men, who committed the greater offense?" he asks.

Fessio also says that the Vatican has a huge problem handling appeals from priests who have been punished for abuse claims but insist they are innocent. Vatican Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whose office handles the appeals, told Fessio last year he had 700 backed-up cases but can process only 70 per year.

"Slow justice is no justice," Fessio says.


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