Religious Orders: Keep Abusive Priests Working
Priests Not Defrocked Could Cause Glut of Religious Men with Limited Roles
The Associated Press
August 11, 2002
Philadelphia — Leaders of Roman Catholic religious orders approved details of their plan Saturday to keep sexually abusive clergy away from children but in the priesthood, creating review boards to monitor how their communities handle offenders.
The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an association of heads of groups such as Bendictines and Jesuits, also acknowledged their members had sometimes failed to sufficiently discipline errant clergy in the past.
"We are deeply sorry for that and publicly apologize for whenever and however we have failed victims or families," they said in the document, which won overwhelming approval by the leaders. "These religious priests or brothers who have molested children or adolescents have broken the bonds of trust invested in them. We feel this hurt deeply."
The vote came at the conclusion of the organization's annual meeting, where spiritual leaders discussed how the abuse policy American bishops approved two months ago in Dallas could be adapted for their religious communities. About 15,000 of the 46,000 U.S. priests belong to the orders.
Some victim advocates have demanded that all errant clergy be ousted from the priesthood. But the conference leaders, drawing on the findings of experts on sex offenders, believe some abusers can recover and serve the church in administrative jobs far from young people.
In their document Saturday, the religious orders pledged the men would undergo treatment and remain under close watch. They also added language, suggested during the floor debate, that anyone who violated restrictions set by their orders could be dismissed.
The plan drew immediate criticism from victim advocates. They noted the policy was not mandatory, since the conference does not have the authority to make the plan binding. The advocates argued it gave the orders too much freedom in disciplining guilty priests.
"This is not a new chapter for religious orders in this crisis. This is the same story we've heard before," said Mark Serrano, a national board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. He said the conference should have agreed to let prosecutors scour the orders' personnel files to see if some offenders had escaped punishment.
Like the bishops, religious communities will bar abusers from any positions that require face-to-face contact with parishioners.
But the bishops decided to remove offenders from all church work and, in some cases, from the priesthood entirely.
The orders believe that approach is too harsh. Priests take vows of poverty when they join religious communities, and the communities say they function as families. They felt strongly that their approach should be guided by the Catholic belief in redemption for sinners.
"Just as a family does not abandon a member convicted of serious crimes, we cannot turn our backs on our brother," the statement read.
The Rev. Canice Connors, the conference president, said in his opening address earlier in the week that he thought the bishops were "paralyzed in remorse" when they developed their policy and he accused them of scapegoating errant clergy. He has spent two decades overseeing treatment for abusive priests and believes some can be rehabilitated.
The Rev. Ted Keating, a Marist and the conference executive director, said he could not imagine any order failing to participate, considering the public outrage about abuse in the church.
The conference also voted Saturday to improve support services for victims and start educational programs to prevent abuse. The findings of the national review board will be made public.
Order priests are not completely independent from the church hierarchy. Under church law, bishops have authority over religious-order clergy serving within a diocese. Dozens of the estimated 300 clergymen taken off duty this year because of abuse claims are members of religious communities.
Staff members from both the bishops' and the religious orders' conferences plan to meet in a month or so to further discuss discipline for abusive priests.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.