Some Ask If Accused Priests Get Fair Shake

By Ann Rodgers
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh PA]
November 13, 2004

As the U.S. Catholic bishops review rules they adopted in 2002 to eliminate child molesters from the clergy, some unexpected voices are asking if bishops are now too quick to remove accused priests.

"Priests are generally not getting due process" under canon law, said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who for 20 years has been one of the most prominent advocates for minors who were molested by priests.

But Doyle also has been an advocate for accused priests.

"I think what has been happening in many cases I've seen is that men are notified and sanctions are placed against them, but it is not properly investigated by an internal church body," he said. Internal investigations are done regardless of whether there is a police investigation, to determine whether the priest is suitable for ministry.

It's difficult to get a clear picture of what happens, because, "It's all secret," Doyle said. But he believes that some bishops who once dismissed victims without investigation have simply turned the tables on priests.

He did not single out any dioceses.

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer who chairs the bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, shares some of Doyle's concern. Like Doyle, he has a long track record of advocating the removal of any priest who has abused a minor and of criticizing the hierarchy for protecting abusive priests.

The rules for responding to child sexual abuse by clergy are contained in a charter and norms adopted in 2002. Bishops are consulting with key lay and clerical advisory groups concerning possible revisions to the charter in June. And a group of Vatican officials and U.S. bishops is to begin reviewing the norms next month.

Cafardi does not expect or advocate major changes.

Detroit is among several to employ a professional investigator, Cafardi said.

The Rev. Ronny Jenkins, a canon law professor at Catholic University of America and consultant to the U.S. bishops on the sexual abuse norms, said the norms say little about how to conduct an investigation. He believes that the lead investigator should know canon law, "But I do recommend that you have other assistance, such as a social worker or someone with background as a police investigator."

A social worker, Rita Flaherty, works on investigations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"I'm not a private eye, but I do my best to follow up on whatever information I have," she said.

She described a case in which it was claimed that a priest with a parish school would call students out of class and abuse them at the rectory.

"I checked with all of the teachers I could find who would have taught in that school at that time, and with the support staff, the secretaries," she said.

"I didn't share confidential information, but I asked about the general scenario in 1950, about whether it would have been protocol for a child to be called out of class and sent to the rectory. Did anyone recall seeing these kinds of things happen? That would be an example of the efforts we make to investigate here."

The normal pattern in Pittsburgh is for Flaherty and other diocesan officials to interview the accuser and the priest to make a preliminary judgment about credibility. Accused priests are given a list of canon lawyers, and do not have to speak without one present, diocesan officials said.

"If there is at least the appearance of the possibility that it could have occurred" the bishop puts the priest on temporary leave and orders that evidence be gathered for the review board, said the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, diocesan vicar for canonical services. The review board is said to include professionals with expertise in law, social work and child protection, and a parent whose child was abused by a priest.

The board can either recommend returning the priest to ministry or sending the case to Rome for further action. But the decision belongs to the bishop.

In a few egregious cases, the pope will immediately "dismiss the priest from the clerical state." Otherwise, Vatican officials can try the case in Rome, or send it back to the diocese for either a trial or "administrative process," a less complex method of removing clergy.

Canonical trials are closed. Even the verdict does not have to be published, Jenkins said.

There is no jury. Three judges collect the evidence, question witnesses and render the verdict. Canon lawyers serve as prosecutor and defense counsel. Most testimony is in writing.

DiNardo said: "The design of the process is about as good a process as you can probably design. I think it's working."

Survivor advocacy groups remain critical.

With the removal of 800 priests, "No question, the church is safer today," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

However, "It is safe to say that there are many in the hierarchy who want to weaken the charter. And we have not yet heard of one bishop who is arguing that it should be strengthened."

He believes that better investigations would benefit victims as well as accused priests. But he believes that requires public announcements when a priest is accused. "When the police can't solve a crime, they put the accused bank robber's picture on the news," he said.

Jenkins cited conflicting opinions from experts in law enforcement. Some believe that a public announcement can bring forth more evidence, although it may harm an innocent man.


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