Catholics Try to Clear Backlog of Priest Cases
Trials Could Decide Abuse Complaints

By David Crumm and Patricia Montemurri
Detroit [Detroit MI]
August 12, 2004

Catholic leaders are launching a major effort to dig through a backlog of hundreds of cases involving priests suspended for alleged sexual abuse of minors -- even as a national support group for victims is raising fresh complaints about the way the church handles new accusations.

This month, Catholic leaders are organizing special church courts that will start work soon in Michigan and other states to resolve older cases in which accused priests want to be reinstated. The tribunals, closed to the public, will hear from priests, accusers and witnesses. Some of the more than 40 priests removed from ministry in Michigan since 2002 will appear before a tribunal.

But at the moment, many of these U.S. cases are sitting on hold at the Vatican, so several U.S. experts in church law are being sent overseas to sort out the backlog.

"The effort is to search for the truth of the matter in a fair and objective way," Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Walter Hurley, the local point man in combatting abuse in the church, said Wednesday. "None of our trials are public, but the results of the trial will be made known."

Today, Hurley and other Catholic officials have scheduled a news briefing on the massive effort to resolve these cases.

On Wednesday, however, the handling of the case of a visiting Mexican priest, accused of fondling a 7-year-old boy from St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Detroit, sparked a protest by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Barbara Blaine, president of the nationwide group, visited Detroit and issued an open letter, complaining that church officials should do more to find other possible victims and that a local magistrate should not have made supportive remarks about the priest.

On Friday, the Rev. Luis Javier de Alba Campos, 49, formerly a priest at St. Gabriel, was arraigned on two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. At that time, 36th District Magistrate Robert Costello took the unusual step of making a public statement, explaining that he is Catholic, remains proud of his church and believes that everyone needs "God's mercy."

Blaine delivered a letter to 36th District Court on Wednesday, criticizing Costello's remarks and saying they were "inappropriate, insensitive and may deter victims and witnesses from coming forward." Blaine urged Costello to apologize for his remarks.

When asked about Blaine's letter, Costello said, "We aren't supposed to make any statements about cases." He also said that he won't be involved further, because another judge will handle the priest's Sept. 9 preliminary examination.

Ned McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, called Blaine's complaint ill-informed. Church officials already have asked parishioners in English and Spanish to come forward with information, he said. "We also notified neighboring parishes and Latino publications."

Neither De Alba Campos nor his attorneys could be reached for comment.

U.S. Catholic bishops, meanwhile, are acknowledging that a major effort is needed to resolve about 700 cases of priests accused of abuse, the vast majority of whom were never prosecuted in criminal courts.

Since 2002, U.S. Catholic bishops have vowed to pursue a zero-tolerance policy, removing any priest credibly accused of using a minor for sexual purposes. In metro Detroit, 23 priests have been accused and removed from ministry since early 2002, although the Vatican earlier this year reinstated one man, the Rev. Brian Bjorklund, a former Navy chaplain now in California.

"We've got hundreds of suspended priests floating out in there in limbo, because the church is not able to move their cases along," said the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine and an expert on the structure of the Catholic Church.

Because most of the accusations are years old, the vast majority of the priests face no criminal prosecution and their fate rests in the Catholic legal code, known as canon law.

"The Vatican just doesn't have the personnel to handle all these cases," Reese said

Starting in September, several canon lawyers from the United States will be transferred to Rome to help with the backlog. None of those going are from Michigan.

"This is actually a very positive development," Reese said. "This means that the Vatican is realizing they can't handle this backlog on their own. And I think it's good that they're asking for help from American canon lawyers. No canon lawyer from the United States will fail to understand how important this issue is."

Some cases will be assigned to the new tribunals in the United States, said Rev. Arthur Espelage, a Franciscan priest who heads the Virginia-based Canon Law Society of America. The effort is a huge commitment of church resources, he said, because canonical trials tend to be time-consuming and require an unprecedented number of canon lawyers. About 1,000 canon lawyers are in the United States, mostly priests, but including nuns and laypeople.

In Detroit, Joe Maher, the head of a support group for accused priests called Opus Bono Sacerdotii, praised the new effort in southeast Michigan.

"Detroit is actually trying to get these cases taken care of in an expeditious manner, to their credit, so people aren't left hanging."