Church Must Re-Evaluate Zero Tolerance Policy

By Lindsay Orman
The Battalion [United States]
March 4, 2004

Since January 2002, nearly 700 Catholic priests accused of sexually assaulting children have been removed from churches in accordance with U.S. bishops' zero-tolerance policy. However, a recent report issued by the Vatican makes the dangerous contention that this policy is more conducive to furthering abuse by distancing sex offenders from the church and releasing them unsupervised into society.

The report insists that a policy of zero tolerance is an overreaction, when evidence shows that, if anything, zero tolerance "has barely been enacted, and it has been very sporadically enforced," David Clohessy, a leading advocate for abuse victims, told The New York Times. To relax the policy further would sanction keeping pedophile priests in positions of

moral authority, a situation inexcusably dangerous for potential victims.

The Vatican report, "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," condemns zero tolerance as an "abdication of responsibility" by the church, according to The Los Angeles Times.

However, the church's role is to provide religious teaching, not criminal

punishment or rehabilitation.

Employing sex offenders as moral leaders is contrary to the purpose of the church; the responsibility of disciplining these monsters rightly belongs to law enforcement and criminal justice officers. Keeping child molesters closer to God by keeping them in the parishes puts the people to whom the church ministers at risk. Rather than endangering congregations, bishops should relinquish disciplinarian and rehabilitation therapy to the courts. This is an appropriate transference of responsibility, not an abdication.

The real "abdication of responsibility" being committed by the church is in allowing bishops to turn a blind eye to offenses.

While defending the zero-tolerance policy of the American Catholic Church, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, assured the public that "known offenders are not in ministry. The terrible history recorded here today is history." However, the network of abuse victims was quick to point out that nine bishops who were reported abusers were allowed to continue actively in ministry, and some were even permitted to stay in the parishes, according to The New York Times.

Bishops have also shirked the responsibility of publicly releasing removed priests' names as a preventative measure and warning for future neighbors. There is no need for these criminals to be released anonymously into society, which is one of the main complaints against zero tolerance. Proper public notification of criminal history provides a more suitable remedy for promoting a safe society than allowing sex offenders to remain in the society of the church does.

The statistics supply staggering evidence for this claim. In a study released by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the dioceses and religious orders surveyed confessed that 10,667 children had been molested by 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002. Twenty-seven percent of these crimes included oral sex and 25 percent involved a priest penetrating the child.

Repeat offenders constitute the majority of these crimes, a compelling reason to enforce a policy of zero tolerance if children are to be protected. Twenty-seven percent of all accusations were against a group of only 149 priests, each of whom had at least 10 instances of abuse.

One has trouble understanding how keeping these priests in the ministry curtailed abuse, or how removing them could have been detrimental to society. The church congregation is a segment of society, too.

Although William Marshall, a co-author of the Vatican report, declared that zero tolerance "is certain to have disastrous consequences, including the clergy sex offender committing suicide or re-offending," his concerns are misplaced, because hypothetical victims are given more thought than real abuse survivors.

Evidence from the John Jay study more than confirms the problem of repeat offenders long before zero tolerance was put into place and in instances when zero tolerance was not enforced. Zero tolerance does not cause repeat offenses. Concerning suicide, the death of a sex offender would be tragic as a loss of human life, but if one had to choose, a criminal's self-inflicted death seems a preferable consequence when weighed against the devastating effects that a person would produce by sexually abusing a child. At least in that event, he can no longer be a threat to society.

Though it could stand to be improved, the zero-tolerance policy, cannot be relaxed if integrity, safety and trust are to be found in the relationship between the Catholic Church and its members.Responsibility for the effective implementation of the policy ultimately rests on the bishops.

According to the John Jay study, only 14 percent of accused priests were ever reported by their bishops to the police, an alarming abdication of responsibility that can no longer go unpunished.


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