Male religious orders may not be accountable to Catholic Church

By Peter Smith
VirgIslands Daily News
March 28, 2016

PITTSBURGH — Even as the leadership of a Hollidaysburg, Pa.-based Franciscan province is called to account in criminal court for its handling of a sex offender, the case is raising a broader question:

Just how accountable are male religious orders for following the U.S. Catholic Church’s zero-tolerance policy adopted in 2002?

Such orders are typically authorized by the pope and consist of priests and brothers who make specific vows, typically to poverty, chastity and obedience, with some orders having additional vows.

While dioceses, their bishops and priests are usually the most public face of a church in a given community, religious orders frequently provide the personnel to work in parishes, schools, hospitals, social-service agencies and retreat houses.

The orders have overlapping jurisdictions and hierarchies from regular dioceses and bishops. That has created conflict for centuries at times — such as with the reluctance of missionary orders to turn over the keys of the churches they started to ordinary bishops once they’re up and running. With brothers answering to their superiors but needing bishops’ authorization to work in a diocese, such crossed lines of authority can complicate a coordinated response to a predator.

Since 2002, leaders of male orders have pledged to abide by the same policies bishops have in banning abusers from ministry for one or more offense. Most orders have their policies and practices scrutinized by an outside agency for accreditation.

But seeking accreditation from the Texas-based Praesidium, which consults with a variety of youth-serving organizations, is voluntary on the part of religious orders. The Hollidaysburg-based Franciscan order let its accreditation lapse years ago, a Praesidium official said.

Religious orders may have fine policies in place, but “what’s more difficult is the actual cases and how they’re dealt with,” said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and member of a Dominican order.

Doyle co-authored a 1985 report to bishops that sounded an early alarm about the looming crisis of sexual abuse, and he now often serves as an expert consultant to plaintiffs alleging abuse by clerics in legal claims.

Religious orders’ responses are often “severely deficient,” he said. “I’ve been involved in cases in the United States and Ireland where there are still strident attempts by religious superiors to deny any culpability.”

Religious orders can “transfer men around more surreptitiously than bishops because most of them are international in scope,” said Doyle, himself a member of a Dominican religious order.

Such transfers were illustrated in recent reports by a statewide grand jury investigating sexual abuse by priests and others associated with the Catholic Church within the eight-county Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

A report issued this month formed the basis for criminal charges against three former ministers provincial for the Franciscan Friars, Third Order Regulars of the Immaculate Conception Province. The order is based at St. Bernardine Monastery, a cluster of modest yellow-brick buildings and outdoor statues surrounded by farmland on the outskirts of the county-seat of Hollidaysburg

The Very Rev. Giles Schinelli (who led from 1986-1994), Robert J. D’Aversa (1994-2002) and Anthony Criscitelli were arraigned March 18 on one count each of criminal conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children.

According to the report, Schinelli admitted he transferred Brother Stephen Baker to Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown in 1992 despite a psychological evaluation of the friar that warned he should not have one-on-one contact with children. In 2000, D’Aversa removed Baker after receiving a credible allegation, but he and Criscitelli for years afterward allowed Baker to work with youths in school and retreat work. The grand jury said he molested more than 100 youths before he committed suicide in January 2013, just days after revelations of his abuse.

The grand jury found a history of transferring friars across jurisdictions. In the 1960s, the order had a priest, the Rev. Raymond Waldruff. After he was accused of abuse in Blair County, Pa., the province transferred him to Owensboro, Ky., where he faced more complaints. The province quickly transferred him to West Virginia. Waldruff died in 1985.

But for whatever cultural and legal reasons such practices occurred in the past, they were supposed to come to an abrupt stop in 2002.

That year the Boston Globe published an expose (recounted in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight”) of a systemic cover up of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. That triggered an avalanche of revelations worldwide.

In June 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in Dallas to approve a charter (policy document) that removed any priest from ministry for one or more sexual offenses against minors. Such priests would either be ousted from the priesthood or required to lead a life of penance with no public ministry, never to wear clerical garb or present themselves publicly as a priest.

Later in 2002, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the umbrella group for leaders of more than 200 male religious orders, resolved to “honor the values and principles of the Dallas Charter.”

It said that, even though a sex offender “remains a member of our family,” a religious order would need to put him under “severe restrictions.” He “cannot be reassigned to public ministries or be involved with young people,” it said.

Yet Baker kept up that involvement for years after 2002, the report said. Criscitelli told the grand jury that Baker had a “safety plan” and that the friars are “responsible for one another,” but it said none of them had authority over him in Hollidaysburg, and Criscitelli was in Minnesota.

The Rev. John Pavlik, current executive director of the conference, said such revelations are “gut-wrenching,” knowing young people have been “grievously harmed.”

He said the conference has committed itself to many safety protocols but acknowledged it’s little comfort to say that most are complying.

“I’m appalled this happened,” he said of the Baker case, particularly since he was a known serial abuser.

“How the heck did that happen, is what I’m asking,” he said. “Everybody has to work at this to stay vigilant. You can’t grow tired of this and say the church has dealt with it.”

There are currently 11,710 religious-order priests in the United States (nearly a third of all Catholic priests) and 4,200 religious brothers, who are not ordained. Both figures, as with for other priests and nuns, are down sharply since their peak in the 1960s.

Most of the larger orders, representing about 90 percent of religious-order men, regularly seek and attain accreditation, said Christy Schiller, vice president for religious services for Praesidium.

The company accredits orders after reviewing a range of categories, including the screening of new members, safe-environment training for existing members and staff, having a compassionate response to those bringing allegations and the monitoring of members who are on “safety plans,” including keeping them out of such positions as pastor. The investigators also consult with dioceses where an order’s members work to see if there are concerns.

She said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of the Franciscan case but said the province let its accreditation lapse years ago without seeking renewal. Accreditations historically have been for three years.


Pavlik said religious orders have to want to be safe places.

“It’s the difference between compliance and conversion,” he said.

This is the second time in recent years a religious order with Pennsylvania ties came under such scrutiny.

In 1997, the St. Louis-based Marianist Province of the United States abruptly removed Brother Bernard Hartman from his teaching position at North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh after learning of an allegation he had sexually abused a minor in Australia years earlier.

But only after the allegation became public in 2011 did the order acknowledge the reason for his removal. In the meantime, Hartman had lived at a Marianist site in Dayton, Ohio, continued to wear the garb of a religious brother and received public tributes from the order for his years of service. He was sentenced in 2015 to two years in prison in Australia.

After Hartman’s arrest, one person told the Diocese of Pittsburgh he was abused by him. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office determined it could not be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.


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