Due Process for Priests?
Critics, Frightened Priests Both Uneasy with Church's Policies, Actions
By Brian D. Sabin
Northwest Indiana Times
February 3, 2006
Due process does not apply to priests accused of molesting kids and it never has, according to both a priests advocacy group and critics of the Catholic church.
For different reasons, both priests and church critics say due process hasn't been observed when it comes to allegations against priests.
Priests say they're practically guilty upon accusation. Critics say the church for too long gave accused priests a pass and simply transferred them to other assignments without adequately investigating or addressing the problems.
Recent abuse allegations against Chicago clergymen show that in the court of public opinion, "innocent until proved guilty" stops at the church doorstep. "I don't know of any priest who is not afraid," the Rev. Robert Silva said.
Silva is president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, an advocacy group that represents 26,000 of America's 43,000 priests.
"Anyone can accuse them, and they'll have to step down," Silva said.
"How do you restore people's confidence? How do you restore your reputation if you get accused?"
The Archdiocese of Chicago on Wednesday removed the Rev. Joe Bennett from Holy Ghost parish in South Holland. Allegations against Bennett surfaced two years ago, a spokesman for the archdiocese said, but a diocesan review board had not found enough evidence to remove him.
Cardinal Francis George removed Bennett after facing an emotional crowd of parishioners and parents at St. Agatha's church on Chicago's West Side, spokesman Jim Dwyer said. That church's former pastor, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, faces charges of sexually abusing three boys, all younger than 13 when the alleged abuse occurred.
For most of the last century, protect the priest is exactly what the church, many of its parishioners and even many victims, did.
A 2004 audit of reported sex abuse allegations against clergymen shows that while incidents of abuse occurred at similar rates in each decade from 1950 onward, 84 percent of those cases were not reported until after 1990.
Individual dioceses fielded most accusations and often handled them internally. When the charges were true, the Catholic hierarchy usually relocated the guilty priest without notifying his new parishioners of his past.
In the minds of many, the church ignored the problem and placed sexual predators among new crops of unsuspecting victims. Due process wasn't an issue.
After confession, in the eyes of the church, the incidents never happened.
Today, in the public's mind, McCormack already is guilty, many say: Even if he were acquitted, one priest said, McCormack could never return to St. Agatha.
He probably can't come back to Chicago. His name is now forever linked to crimes he is accused of committing.
When it comes to priests accused of sexual abuse, attorney Frederic Nessler said, "Ruining lives is not a priority issue, because I feel they've ruined so many children's lives."
Nessler has represented nearly 100 victims of clergy abuse.
"In my opinion, (offending priests) should be given very little quarter," he said.
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