Bishops Likely to Tighten Policy on Abuse, Says S.J.'s Mcgrath

By Richard Scheinin and Brandon Bailey
San Jose Mercury News [California]
June 1, 2002

San Jose Bishop Patrick J. McGrath expects the nation's Roman Catholic bishops to hammer out a strict policy of "zero tolerance" on sexual abuse when they meet this month. If that happens, any priest who has ever molested a child will suffer swift justice: "They will never function with a Roman collar again," predicts McGrath, who won't be surprised if his colleagues adopt just such a measure when at the June 13-15 conference in Dallas.

We spoke to McGrath about zero tolerance and the possibility that it will be applied to cases "past, present and future."

We also discussed two priests still in the San Jose Diocese who were convicted of sex crimes involving a minor — one in the 1970s, the other in the '90s.

The priests' stories were told Sunday in the Mercury News: Each was jailed, received psychiatric treatment and returned to work. Neither has been accused of further crimes, but their pastoral assignments have been markedly different, in keeping with evolving church attitudes about sexual abusers, McGrath says. The bishop discussed the cases and how they have informed his thinking as he prepares to go to Dallas.

Q Are you receiving input from parishioners and priests about what the bishops' position should be on zero tolerance?

A I'm hearing from parishioners and priests, both. It depends on who you talk to, how you define zero tolerance. Some people define it as past, present and future — any kind of (sexually abusive) behavior involving children. And others want to define it as only present and future. Now you wouldn't just accept the past; you would allow past cases to be looked at by a Sensitive Incident Team, which our diocese has and which I would assume most dioceses have by now.

I don't think there's any consensus yet on what zero tolerance means. But stuff I've read coming out of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops seems to be referring to the first interpretation: past, present and future. Bishop Wilton Gregory (president of the conference) has made comments referring to the whole spectrum.

The dilemma arises in cases where priests have worked in ministry for some years, seemingly without further incident. How do you deal with that? I think people today want to be absolutely sure that their children are safe. So I don't know that the older protocol is valid anymore.

Q What protocol is that?

A Where after receiving treatment and recommendations from a doctor, the person is not decreed to be a predator; where limits on the person's ministry would be applied (when he returns to work as a priest); where the people he works with would be informed of his past.

There are even doctors today who say there are instances of ephibophilia (abnormal sexual desire for adolescents and teens) that are treatable. That's an interesting point, but I'm not sure that's going to be acceptable to people today.

It's increasingly difficult for me, as I think about it, pray about it and listen to people talk about it, to believe that we can do anything less than past, present and future.

Confirmation season is just over, and I was out in the parishes. And every place I went, I detected great support for the priests. Now, is there equal support for the hierarchy? No.

I think people are upset with the bishops for how this was handled and the decisions that were made ... and I understand that. Nobody attacked me personally, but I am a bishop, and I bear the collective guilt for all this stuff ...

Q (There are two priests still active in the San Jose diocese with convictions for sexual abuse of minors. The Rev. Leonel Noia, convicted in 1976, was returned to full-time parish ministry and has been pastor for the last 16 years at San Jose's Five Wounds Portuguese National Church. He is now on sabbatical. The Rev. Robert A. Gray, convicted in 1993, was given administrative assignments outside parishes.) Can you talk about why (the two priests were handled differently, in terms of their subsequent assignments)? A I think it was San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn who would have returned Father Noia to parish ministry. (Local parishes were part of the Archdiocese of San Francisco until 1981, when the San Jose Diocese was formed). Back then, it was probably something the archbishop, after consulting and looking at recommendations of psychologists, felt that he could do.

Now, about Father Gray. We knew a lot more about this in the '90s than we did in the '70s. Maybe Bishop Pierre DuMaine (who preceded McGrath as bishop in San Jose) did not feel that he could in conscience put somebody who did these things in a full-time parish ministry.

I would think it was the circumstances of the times. Back in the '70s, the person could go through therapy ... and if the big medical expert said, 'Yes, this is fine,' the bishop would not have a problem going along with it. I'm not sure the bishops today would write the same recommendation.

Q Yet Father Noia has earned the respect of many parishioners and colleagues in the 26 years since his conviction. Is his experience an argument for giving priests a second chance?

A It could be. But let me say this, and this is what haunts me: I don't have kids. But I have nieces and nephews.

I don't know if as a bishop I could take that risk today (of keeping him in active ministry). I'm not sure if that's going to be possible anymore. I'm hoping that the Dallas meeting will help in sorting these things out so that there will be a set procedure.

Whatever comes out of Dallas, we are going to follow it. San Jose will follow the national norm. It has to be.

I'm expecting Dallas to come up with an office at the national level that oversees me — and every other bishop — and makes sure that I follow the policy. And our Sensitive Incident Team (the diocesan team that investigates allegations of sexual misconduct against local priests or church employees) will be watchdogs on this as well.

Q So no second chances for someone like Noia?

A There is nothing to say that he has ever offended in this way again. But I'm not really sure that that's the major thing on people's minds anymore.

Q What is?

A The safety of their kids. Parents need to know that we have done everything that is humanly possible to make sure that this doesn't happen to their kids.

Q Gray's full-time assignments have been administrative. But he was additionally allowed to celebrate Mass at parishes? Why?

A Bishop DuMaine felt that he could exercise priesthood in the sense of being allowed to say Mass. But he was not to have any involvement with the people of the parish.

Q Were parishioners informed of his background?

A I found out that they were not, but that the pastor was told. And he was the one to keep an eye open to make sure Father Gray followed these guidelines.

But could I say that everybody in the parish knew about it? No. But I would say most people in both parishes knew about it. It's not the best-kept secret.

I would have preferred if they had (all) known.

Q Two months ago, you instructed Gray to stop saying Mass.

A The climate had changed. People do not seem to be willing to have a priest with that kind of background in a parish.

Q Have these two cases shaped your thinking about zero tolerance?

A These two priests have functioned (in recent years), as far as I know, as well as any of us do in whatever we do. The other side of me wants to say, "I understand where parents are coming from. Their greatest treasure is their kids. They are not willing, and rightly so, to take any kind of a chance with them. And sometimes the greater good has to win out over individual good. The benefit of the doubt must be given to the church, and by "church," I mean "the people."

They are the church. So even if it means that individuals have to bear some burdens that are difficult to bear then I think we have to do that.

Q As it stands today, what should be done with a priest who is the subject of an accusation? Or of a credible allegation?

A I believe that all accusations have to be taken seriously. I also believe that everybody has rights ...

If it's a minor (involved), we notify the authorities. We will not do any investigation ourselves until the authorities finish theirs, because we might jeopardize their investigation. When they finish, we still have to do ours ... And that would be done by our Sensitive Incident Team ... And if it's a credible allegation, then I am waiting for the recommendation of the team...

In my mind, if the allegation is "credible," that means I believe it. Well, if I believe it, then in conscience I can't reassign someone.

Articles that appeared on the front page on May 26, June 5 and June 22 and in the Family & Religion section on June 1 incorrectly described the sentence imposed on the Rev. Robert A. Gray, who pleaded no contest in 1993 to molesting a minor. He was sentenced to 160 days in jail and five years of probation, but the jail term was suspended as part of his probation.


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