Priests' Rights, Policy at Odds
Board Calls for Legal Consistency in Abuse Cases

By Geneive Abdo
Chicago Tribune
March 29, 2004

[Note from We have redacted this cached copy of the original article after reviewing the court file and other sources. Square brackets indicate locations where we have removed a total of six words that appeared in the text of the original article.]

BOSTON -- Now that the Catholic Church has taken steps after years of inaction to purge itself of abusive priests, canon lawyers, church officials and other experts are beginning to voice a new concern: The legal rights of accused priests are being slighted.

In some cases priests are forced to leave their parishes even before the abuse allegations are investigated. These men have little hope their cases will go to trial swiftly, in large part because of a logjam at the Vatican as it processes mountains of paperwork.

As a result, members of the National Review Board--the watchdog group commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--are calling for uniform regulations that would protect priests' legal rights.

"There will be some priests who are accused who are innocent," said Anne Burke, the Illinois Appellate Court judge who chairs the board. "Priests throughout the country should have uniform justice and due process."

At the same time, some experts note that the Vatican may be reconsidering the American church's approach to dealing with sex abuse--particularly its zero-tolerance policy, under which any priest found to have committed abuse is removed without exception.

For years many Catholic bishops had put a priority on protecting priests and the church, fueling outrage when it became clear that some priests were allowed to molest children repeatedly. Now, as they try to appease the public by cracking down on priests, the bishops have gone to the other extreme, critics argue.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted rules in 2002 on how diocesan officials should handle allegations of sex abuse. Review boards appointed by dioceses are to investigate the allegations, and canonical trials determine whether the priests are guilty.

The Catholic Church has its own legal system and a cadre of canon lawyers, who are specialists in the rules governing the faith and practices of the church. The church trials, however, differ from those in criminal or civil courts. They are not held on a specific day; instead, information is gathered over time before a verdict is reached.

Some review board members and experts now say that some dioceses are failing to comply with the spirit of the guidelines approved in 2002.

"There is great disparity in how these cases are being handled from one diocese to another," said Nicholas Cafardi, the only canon lawyer on the board.

The rules state "all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect the reputation of the accused during the investigation," but they provide no specifics. The priest also is to be removed from his parish only "when there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred."

When an accusation is filed in Chicago, the archdiocese notifies the priest and places him under monitoring. He is not removed from a parish until a review board composed of three clerics and six lay people determine if the accusation is substantive enough to make him a threat to children and others.

Forced to go on leave

But in Boston--the epicenter of the sex scandal--and many other dioceses, many priests are forced to take an administrative leave as soon as any accusation is registered and before an investigation is conducted.

For Rev. Roger Jacques, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Waltham, Mass., the call from the archdiocese came unexpectedly in October 2002. A 31-year-old woman had accused him of molesting [two words redacted] her 20 years earlier when he was at a different parish.

"I was called to a meeting and told that a woman had accused me of sexual molestation, but I didn't recognize her name," said Jacques, 51. "I was told to leave my parish that afternoon."

Jacques, who had been pastor of St. Joseph since 1995, has continued to receive his $1,500 monthly salary from the church and a monthly stipend of $800 for housing and food. Since he was dismissed, he has taken jobs delivering papers and gardening for extra money.

"If you are an accused priest, you are treated like a leper. You are to be put out of sight," he said at his family's home.

James O'Brien, Jacques' lawyer, said it is unfair to suspend anyone from his job until the charges are investigated and found to be credible.

Priests "are waiting for someone to reach a conclusion, and in the meantime their reputations are damaged," O'Brien said.

Officials of the Boston archdiocese declined to discuss the allegations against Jacques. His case was sent to the Vatican, indicating the allegations were deemed credible, and the Vatican has directed the archdiocese to begin the trial process.

A lawsuit the woman filed against Jacques states that in 1982 he "engaged in explicit sexual behavior and lewd lascivious behavior" with her when she was 11 [four words redacted]. She was given a settlement from the Boston archdiocese in that case as well as a second settlement based on charges she lodged against another priest, said her lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian.

Garabedian said he believes it is just that Jacques, or any priest accused of sexual abuse, be removed from his parish immediately because of the potential harm to children.

"It is wise to be cautious," he said. "You have a choice of letting an alleged pedophile work with children, and if a child is molested, the harm is irreparable."

Advocacy groups for victims alleging sexual abuse agree.

"Given the severity of the crime, we simply have to protect kids," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "No process is perfect."

Amy Strickland, a canon lawyer for the Boston archdiocese, said the need to protect children is one reason behind the policy of instantly removing accused priests. Another is public anger at the way the church spent decades ignoring complaints by victims and protecting priests.

"Priests are now paying the price for what the church did. Now, there is a presumption of guilt for all priests accused of sex crimes," she said. "I am sorry this is the case. It is an imperfect system, but I don't know right now how to do any better than we are doing."

In recent years, charges against some priests have been withdrawn. In March 1994, a man who had accused former Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of sexual abuse in the 1970s dropped the accusation. And last week, Rev. Thomas White was reinstated to his Wheaton parish after an Aurora man dropped a sexual abuse lawsuit.

Burke, of the National Review Board, said the board should draft specific instructions for all dioceses and archdioceses to follow when dealing with the accused priests.

"There need to be uniform regulations so that when an accusation comes in, the dioceses follow procedures on what should happen next," she said. "We have learned as a review board over the last 20 months that there are inconsistencies from one diocese to another."

Canon law experts said it's uncertain if the review board--which was commissioned to analyze the scope and causes of the sex scandal and to monitor dioceses' compliance with the Catholic bishops' charter--can influence local bishops to comply with such regulations.

Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said local bishops have always operated in a largely independent manner.

"According to the way the church is structured, each bishop is autonomous," Silva said. "The bishops should follow the norms and codes of Dallas and the spirit of the norms, but some don't. . . . So the issues of justice and due process get compromised."

`Failing to protect' priests

Rev. Ladislas Orsy, one of the country's leading experts in canon law, argued recently in the Boston Law Review that it defies common sense that there is no common policy for dioceses to follow when dealing with abuse allegations.

"Such an obviously deficient approach can be explained only by the extreme concern of the Conference [of Catholic Bishops] not to trespass on the jurisdiction of the individual bishops," Orsy wrote.

In an interview, Orsy was more blunt: "In protecting themselves, the bishops are failing to protect the priests."

Even in cases where investigations are complete, a vast majority of the trials have yet to be scheduled. O'Brien said among his many clients who are priests accused of abuse, only Jacques has received notice from the Vatican that the process leading to a trial has begun.

Experts say the enormous volume of cases has overwhelmed the Vatican, causing a logjam in determining which cases should go to trial.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the delay is a serious problem.

"I wish the process could be more expeditious," he said. "I am embarrassed by it. I have gone to the Vatican and said, `Deal with our cases quickly.' But you have three to five experts in the Vatican dealing with all these cases."

Rev. Daniel A. Smilanic, a canon lawyer for the Chicago archdiocese, said another contributing factor is the church's lack of experience with the process.

"Part of the difficulty of applying canon law is that canon law is being asked to respond to questions it didn't have to before," Smilanic said.

He also said that in recent weeks experts commissioned by the Vatican issued a report critical of the zero-tolerance policy.

"There is unease at the Vatican," said Smilanic. "Zero tolerance is one size fits all. And is that smart? It implies that all cases are identical, yet we know they are different."

At Jacques' parish, the pastor's removal has sparked conflicting emotions in the congregation: disillusionment with the church over the abuse crisis and sadness that their priest might not return.

"His loss is more than the loss of a person," said Barbara Saulnier, 85, verging on tears.

"I am an old woman. I went to Catholic schools and we were told: `Pray, pray. Obey, obey,'" she said. "The church was looked upon as correct. You obeyed the nuns. You obeyed the priests. But I don't think that anymore."

Priscilla Parent, a parishioner who works at the parish rectory, said the archdiocese gave the church little chance to tell parishioners that Jacques had been removed.

"We had only a few hours to notify parishioners before it was on the 5 o'clock news," Parent said. "Even now when I talk about it, the feeling of injustice rises up again. It is not good to treat him or any human being that way."