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Scandal Put Priests' Rights at Odds with Church Policy

By Geneive Abdo
Centre Daily Times
Downloaded April 25, 2004

[Note from BishopAccountability.org: 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 -w 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."

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 the 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."

 
 

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