Bishop Accountability
  Punishing Priests Could Take Years

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
July 8, 2004

Most of the Iowa priests who are to be defrocked for child molestation probably will not see the punishment completed in their lifetimes.

About a dozen Iowa priests, most in their 70s and 80s, are among the hundreds that U.S. Catholic bishops are recommending for removal from the clergy. Because of that flood of recommendations, the Vatican is telling dioceses that it could be years before it rules on the cases.

The Des Moines diocese mailed its request to defrock three priests in February. On June 10, the Vatican notified diocese officials that the requests were assigned a number. That letter also contained an apology, stating that the backlog of cases generated by the U.S. Catholic child sexual abuse scandal means it may be some time before anything more is done on the cases.

Advocates for victims said the delay is yet another obstacle to their desire for swift and serious punishments for abusers.

"If things drag on, it is easier for a molester to keep professing his innocence and for Catholics to believe him," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"When the church's own internal court system declares the priest a molester and defrocks him, that spells the end of the denial and gullibility of even the most devout Catholics," he said.

Steve Boeckman, Des Moines diocese spokesman, said the process to remove men from the priesthood -called laicization -is a complex one.

"You would think the diocese could submit the paperwork, that Rome would consider the merits of the case, and they would notify us if the request to laicize the priests was accepted or denied," he said. "But it doesn't work that way."

Church rules for handling abuse allegations require the local church to investigate. If there appears to be sufficient evidence, diocese officials are to inform the Vatican and suspend the priest. The Vatican can decide the case or send it back to the diocese to be tried in a church court.

Since the U.S. bishops adopted new policies for handling sexual misconduct by clergy, hundreds of cases have been submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees cases of sexual abuse involving minors. Vatican officials have said it may take some time to remove even an acknowledged abuser from the priesthood and probably will take even longer if priests contest their removal.

Rand Wonio, attorney for the Davenport diocese, said Bishop William Franklin has asked the Vatican to expedite some of the Davenport requests. Because of the egregious nature of some of the cases, the bishop believes some may merit defrocking without going through the complete canon law procedure.

"We hope what we submitted to them is adequate for their purposes. We were pretty comprehensive," Wonio said.

Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston -the archdiocese in which the priest abuse scandal broke more than two years ago -expressed his frustration with the Vatican's slow response to two dozen Boston cases. Those cases have been in the Vatican's system for two years or more, he said.

The Boston archdiocese suspended 30 priests from ministry since 2002, and so far the Vatican has defrocked three of them.

"The process has been very slow, and I'm very frustrated by that," he said from Rome recently. "The resources here are inadequate to be able to expedite the cases with the facility that we'd like to see."

A Vatican official said last week that two U.S. canon law experts are going to Rome this fall to help prepare clerical abuse cases for processing. The cases will be scheduled over an 18-month period, according to Catholic News Service.

The unnamed official assured the church news agency that the Doctrinal Congregation was doing everything it could to "handle the cases fairly," processing the cases quickly while protecting "everyone's rights."

Heather Smith of Waterloo, co-founder of North East Iowa SNAP, doesn't believe the Vatican is taking the U.S. sexual abuse crisis seriously.

"There seems to be a lack of willingness to deal with the issue," Smith said. "The slow process permits child molesters, rapists and pedophile priests to hide behind their Roman collars and religious habits. It shows a lack of commitment to the protection of children."

The Vatican process is a slower one than U.S. bishops originally wanted.

In 2002, U.S. bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a sweeping policy that called for the removal of any priest from ministry who ever sexually abused a minor -regardless of when the incident occurred. In the original draft, the bishops planned to use their administrative authority to remove priests.

However, the rules were revised by the Vatican, which required more due process for accused priests.

In explaining the delay in the laicization process, the Doctrinal Congregation has argued that many of the cases are so old that it is difficult to gather evidence and interview witnesses. Vatican officials also have complained that some victims are not cooperating with the church investigations of the allegations.

In March 2003, it was announced that Pope John Paul II changed canon law to speed up the removal of priests accused of sexually abusing children. The changes dropped the requirement that tribunal members ruling on the cases must have a doctorate in canon law. That expanded the pool of qualified judges and lawyers to include deacons and lay Catholics.

Also, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was given the power to dismiss someone from the priesthood without a trial, something that previously only the pope could do.


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