Once a Model, Panel on Priests Is Now Faulted

By Sam Dillon
New York Times
May 14, 2002

A decade ago, as it reeled from the now familiar trauma of a sexual abuse scandal, the Archdiocese of Chicago pioneered an institution within the American Catholic Church: a review board that involved laypeople in deciding whether to remove from the ministry priests accused of molesting children.

In the years since, the board has gained a national reputation, removed about a dozen priests and inspired scores of other dioceses to create similar panels of their own.

But recently some Catholics and church critics have questioned how vigorously the Chicago board and its counterparts investigate reports of abuse. They have also accused the boards of undue secrecy, since members' names and proceedings are generally not made public, and insensitivity to people bringing complaints.

Further, some critics question the boards' independence, because members are appointed by bishops and archbishops, although church officials in Chicago and elsewhere insist that no meddling occurs. The Chicago archdiocese has disputed some of its detractors' claims.

When the nation's bishops meet in June, they are likely to discuss the creation of national standards for review boards, with Chicago's as the most prominent model.

Some experts have defended that board's record.

"The Chicago Archdiocese created exemplary procedures for identifying valid abuse accusations, removing priests from pastoral ministry, reporting appropriate cases to authorities and sending priests to treatment," said Scott Appleby, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame University.

In addition, in Chicago and in other dioceses where the lay panels have been established, abusive priests have not been shuffled from parish to parish as frequently as in Boston and other dioceses tainted by recent scandals, Mr. Appleby said.

Yet some who say they are victims of abusive priests have expressed anger and resentment at how the Chicago board handled their cases.

Richard Springer, a taxi driver who reported that he was abused by a priest in the 1950's, when he was a 15-year-old seminarian, attacked the board for keeping its members anonymous and its deliberations secret. Another Chicagoan, a 49-year-old plumber, said that while the archdiocese ultimately conceded that his accusations against a priest were true, it delayed any public acknowledgment of that fact for two years after his complaint was filed, allowing the statute of limitations to lapse. The archdiocese says the delay had nothing to do with avoiding a lawsuit.

Several other Catholics said that church officials had interrogated them harshly about their reports of abuse. Linda Burke, a 52-year-old clinical social worker who was sexually exploited by priests as a teenager, said an archdiocesan lawyer had interrogated her so relentlessly that he reduced her to tears.

"The whole process left me frustrated, angry and alienated," Ms. Burke said.

The Professional Fitness Review Board, made up of three priests and six laypeople, dates to late 1992, when the Chicago Archdiocese was confronting accusations of sexual abuse against more than a dozen priests. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin first appointed a Commission on Clerical Misconduct to review the church's policies and the files of the accused priests. The commission ordered at least five priests removed from the ministry, exonerated others and recommended the establishment of the nine-member board to rule on complaints from then on.

Under the system, abuse complaints are screened by an archdiocesan employee, known as a professional fitness review administrator, who is empowered to interview accused priests and to decide immediately whether to remove them. The complaints are then sent to the board, whose members include a psychiatrist and other professionals and at least one victim of clergy abuse. The board may uphold or modify the administrator's decision.

From its inception through last year, the board examined about 70 complaints of sexual abuse, and 11 priests were removed from the ministry, the chancellor of the archdiocese, Jimmy M. Lago, said.

The archbishop appoints the board's members. But Mr. Lago said that Cardinal Francis George, who assumed direction of the archdiocese in 1997 after Cardinal Bernardin's death, did not seek to influence their decisions. "We put a lot of credibility in the independence of the board, and we don't filter their decisions," Mr. Lago said.

Four out of five of the country's 178 dioceses now rely on lay boards, and not the hierarchy alone, to assess accusations of abuse. Yet this has not silenced questions about the boards' independence.

"I have a problem with these boards, because the bishops appoint their members, no matter what they say," said Sylvia Demarest, a lawyer who obtained a $31 million settlement for victims of sexual abuse from the Diocese of Dallas in 1998. "It's a fiction that they are independent," Ms. Demarest said, "because unless you're loyal to the bishop, you're not getting appointed."

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the new chairman of the committee on sexual misconduct established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told reporters last month he believed that outside consultants, not church-run boards, should review the conduct of priests.

"We have audits for finances, and they are outside consultants," Archbishop Flynn said. "They come in and look at your books. If we do that for finances, it seems we should do that for people."

In recent weeks, the Chicago board imposed more severe sanctions on two priests it had treated leniently last year, raising questions about its initial handling of the accusations. One of the priests, the Rev. Robert Kealy, 55, is a former chancellor of the archdiocese who in the 1980's sat on the committee that monitored accused priests.

When the review board first heard accusations last June from an anonymous Catholic that Father Kealy had abused a teenager in the 1970's, it found them to be "unsubstantiated" and left him in his parish. But Mr. Lago said that after the accuser shed his anonymity and provided new information against Father Kealy in March, the board decided Father Kealy should be removed from the ministry and his case turned over to prosecutors.

Some Chicago Catholics questioned this official explanation.

"They were going to do what they've done with so many other pedophiles, which is ignore the accusations," said Michael Tario, a financial trader who belongs to the parish that Father Kealy presided over and helped found a committee pushing for an overhaul of the archdiocese's sexual abuse policies. "This has been the board's modus operandi for 10 years. They don't do anything until the heat is on."

On Friday, after the archdiocese learned that several victims had criticized the board's anonymity, Mr. Lago identified its members to The New York Times. One of them, Dr. Domeena Renshaw is a psychiatrist who is director of Loyola University's Sexual Dysfunction Clinic. "The board works as best it can under difficult circumstances," Dr. Renshaw said.

Evaluating the culpability of accused priests, often in cases that go back decades, poses a tremendous challenge, she said. "As a practicing Catholic I feel the same shame and sadness hearing of these acts as if my brothers had committed them, but our highest responsibility is to protect children," she said.

Dr. Renshaw said she and her colleagues had wanted to remain anonymous because as volunteers, the time available for meeting with victims or the media was limited.

"It's a logistical thing, rather than avoidance, but nobody will believe that," Dr. Renshaw said.

Anonymity for accusers is another issue. A 43-year-old Chicago surgeon who said he was abused by a priest in 1969 while attending a parochial school contacted the board in 1992. When the surgeon declined to give his name, an archdiocese official refused to investigate his complaint, the surgeon said, but changed his mind after the surgeon said he would tell his story to the Chicago newspapers.

"They were more interested in damage control than in protecting children," the surgeon said.

In another case, a plumber reported to the archdiocese in late 1992 that he had been abused by a priest, the Rev. John Curran, while attending Chicago's Quigley South Seminary. Shortly after the plumber lodged his complaint, Father Curran's parishioners were told that the priest was taking a sabbatical. Two years later, in late 1994, the archdiocese told parishioners that Father Curran had in fact been removed because of abuse accusations. The plumber consulted a lawyer, who said that the statute of limitations for such an accusation had lapsed in those two years, making a lawsuit against the archdiocese impossible.

John O'Malley, director of legal services for the archdiocese, said he could not explain the delay in making Father Curran's abuse public. "But I can assure you that we did nothing to avoid a statute of limitations," he said.

Mr. Springer, the taxi driver, reported to the archdiocese in 1993 that a priest had molested him when he was a teenage seminarian. Mr. Springer's cousin, Steven Causey, also reported having been abused by the priest. The fitness review administrator later reported that he had ruled their accusations to be unsubstantiated, and the retired priest was allowed to remain in his parish. Yet when Mr. Springer hired a lawyer, he said, the archdiocese paid him a settlement.


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