Guidelines Exclude Some Priests
Leadership Is Separate for Religious Orders

By Matt Stearns, Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star (Kansas & Missouri)
June 18, 2002

Although Roman Catholic bishops last week adopted strict guidelines on clergy sexual abuse, the structure of the church means that one-third of U.S. priests do not fall under the new policy.

That's because those priests, many of whom serve in parishes, don't work directly for dioceses, but rather belong to religious orders whose leadership is independent of dioceses.

They are known as "religious priests," and they account for 16,000 of the 46,000 priests in the United States. Among the better-known orders are the Jesuits, an educational order, and the Benedictines, who operate the monastery in Conception, Mo.

More than 5,000 religious priests serve in parishes in dioceses around the country. There are more than 100 religious orders in the United States, said the Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which oversees the orders.

The bishops' new guidelines call for dioceses to work with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men to ensure that all Catholic priests in the country fall under the new policy.

"We've known this was coming down, and we've been talking with (the bishops' conference) about it," Keating said. "Now we'll sit down and see how we work it out together."

Given the current climate, it's likely that religious orders will fall into line with the bishops, said the Rev. Patrick Rush, vicar general of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

There are safeguards built into the system that should keep children protected no matter what the religious orders decide, Rush said.

"A religious priest serves in a diocese at the pleasure of the bishop," he said. "The bishop could at any point say that the priest is not welcome here."

Last weekend, a religious priest was removed from the Church of the Annunciation parish in Kearney for sexual abuse allegations dating to the 1970s. The parish is part of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, but the accused priest is a member of the Society of the Precious Blood, an international religious community.

The Rev. Mark Miller, provincial director of the Kansas City province of the Society of the Precious Blood, said he had placed the Rev. Thomas A. Conway on temporary administrative leave while Miller investigates the allegations.

Miller said the alleged victim sent him a letter last week accusing Conway of inappropriate behavior. The woman said she was 14 or 15 when the alleged abuse occurred in the mid- to late-'70s in another state.

Miller said he immediately told Conway about the allegation. Conway could not be reached for comment Monday.

"Until we find out more from the woman, there's really nothing else we can say at this point," Miller said. "He's visiting friends right now."

Miller said the allegations are the first against any priest in the order.

"It's always a shock, especially in the beginning when you don't know where the truth is," he said.

Miller said he and another member of the religious order would visit the woman in about a week. He declined to say where the woman lived.

"We told her that we would keep her identity anonymous," he said. "But she is certainly free to do what she needs to do."

Conway, 72, was ordained in 1957 and has served in numerous parishes, Miller said. He has been pastor of Church of the Annunciation since 1995.

In July 1997, Conway gained notoriety when he won more than $400,000 playing the 25-cent progressive slots at Sam's Town casino - five years after Missouri's Catholic bishops spoke out against casino gambling in the state.

Miller said his decision to make the allegation public was not a direct result of the bishops' new charter on priest sex abuse.

"The accusation was just made last week," Miller said. "It just so happened to coincide with the bishops' conference."

The Precious Blood order's Kansas City province has 64 members, including 61 priests and three brothers. Miller said the province has priests stationed in eight dioceses, including 20 in Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Conway lived at the Precious Blood center in Liberty with about a dozen other priests, Miller said. Before his Kearney assignment, Conway was an archivist and local director of the order. Prior to that, Conway was at the general headquarters in Rome, serving as secretary general and archivist, Miller said.

Miller said the handling of the allegation was consistent with the religious order's policy and diocesan policy. He said he has not reported the allegation to authorities.

"At this point, it's an allegation," he said. "Until we find out more information, our purpose is to focus attention on how we bring healing and restoration back to the relationship."

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men meets in Philadelphia in August, and the bishops' new policy and how to implement it in religious orders will be a key item on the agenda, Keating said.

But victims said it was troubling that religious orders are not included in the new charter.

"Certainly, it raises some concerns," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Miller said he expects that religious orders will end up with a policy similar to that adopted by the bishops in Dallas.

"By and large, we always operate within the diocesan system," Miller said. "So I would think there would have to be at least some similarity or overlay."


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