Justice Delayed Brings Vindication, Not Peace

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post
August 7, 2002

Michael Bland waited a long time for vindication. But when it finally arrived yesterday, there was no sweetness to it.

When the nation's Roman Catholic bishops listened to sexual abuse victims in Dallas in mid-June, one of the most troubling stories came from Bland, a former priest in the Chicago-based Order Friar Servants of Mary, known as the Servites.

In 1994, nearly seven years after ordination, Bland revealed to superiors that he had been sexually abused as a teenager by an older member of the same order. He was quickly called to Rome to discuss the case. But after he refused to reconcile with his alleged abuser, the Servites just as quickly closed ranks against him.

"The priesthood lost me, but kept the perpetrator," Bland told the bishops in Dallas, noting that the alleged abuser had recently been promoted to full professor and vice dean at a major Catholic university.

Bland's presentation helped prod the bishops to require the permanent removal from ministry of any priest who has sexually abused a minor. He spoke so eloquently but so circumspectly -- never naming the alleged abuser or their religious order -- that the bishops appointed him to a national review board of lay Catholics charged with ensuring that the zero-tolerance policy is carried out.

Yet Bland's own case languished, for two reasons: his alleged abuser was living in Canada, and he was a member of a religious order. The policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops applies only to the United States, and only directly to priests serving in dioceses. Priests who belong to religious orders, such as Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans, answer to the heads of those orders unless they are assigned to parish jobs.

Yesterday, in a brief statement that made no mention of Bland, St. Paul University in Ottawa announced that the Rev. John M. Huels has temporarily left his posts as a professor and vice dean of canon law.

"Upon recommendation of a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, Dr. Huels informed me that he will be on medical leave for the treatment of severe depression," said the university's rector, the Rev. Dale M. Schlitt.

Also yesterday, the Archbishop of Ottawa, Marcel Gervais, issued a statement saying that Huels has "announced his intention to leave the Servite order and seek laicization," the church's term for leaving the priesthood. "It is my hope that his voluntary actions today will bring peace to all involved," Gervais added.

Bland confirmed in an interview that Huels was his alleged abuser, but said the news did not bring any peace. "There are no winners in this," he said. "I'm sure that this is a difficult time for John Huels. It is for me, too."

Huels did not return messages left on his office answering machine seeking comment. No one answered his home telephone.

Gervais also is chancellor of St. Paul. In his statement, he said that when Huels was hired several years ago, he was not told "of any inappropriate behavior" in Huels's past. It was not until in mid-June, he said, that "I was made aware of a situation" involving the priest.

Bland said, however, he had written to the dean of canon law in March, "expressing my concern and wonderment why my perpetrator was teaching at St. Paul University" and questioning Huels's promotion to vice dean.

In the past week, Bland said, he received two phone calls from Gervais, who explained that he was not bound by the U.S. bishops' policies but nevertheless invited Bland to fly to Canada, at the archbishop's expense, to discuss the allegations.

Bland said he told the archbishop that he saw no point in a meeting until Gervais took action against Huels.

This week, the heads of all the male religious orders in the United States will gather behind closed doors in Philadelphia to discuss the application of the Dallas policy to their priests.

A spokeswoman, Marita Eddy, said the Conference of Major Superiors of Men is likely to accept the requirement for removal from ministry of any priest who has abused a minor. But she said its members might decide that, unlike diocesan priests, some religious order priests could remain in office jobs in which they have no contact with children.

"The person would not just be thrown out, but would be given a chance to turn his life around," she said.

Bland said he did not know if the bishops' review board would take a stand on the conference's final decision. "I personally would hope that we do not create a double standard for priests in the United States," he said.


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