Sheehan Says Sex Abuse Policy Will Stop Nationwide Scandals

Associated Press State & Local Wire
June 15, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE — Archbishop Michael Sheehan says the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe in central New Mexico has served as model for a national policy designed to stop priests from committing sexual abuse.

Sheehan said Saturday the measures in the policy passed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops a day earlier have nearly all been implemented in New Mexico. And, he says, they have worked here.

"We had here a microcosm in New Mexico of what has taken place recently in the country," Sheehan told journalists at Albuquerque airport upon his return to Albuquerque following the conference in Dallas.

"Since 1993, we have implemented practically all the points that were included in this charter in the humble hope of removing from our archdiocese any future sexual abuse."

The charter bars priests who commit sexual abuse from parish work and all public ministry. It allows bishops, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people, to oust abusive clergy from the priesthood. And it requires bishops to report all allegation of abuse by priests against minors to the authorities.

Victims groups have criticized the charter, saying it fell far short of the zero-tolerance policy they had hoped for when it failed to require the defrocking of abusive priests.

Sheehan was among the 239 bishops who voted for the proposal. Thirteen bishops voted against it.

He said the universal church rules make defrocking a priest a very difficult process, which was why it wasn't included as a requirement in the charter.

"This is as close to zero tolerance as you can get given the norms of the universal church," Sheehan said, adding that bishops could still approve defrocking a priest in the most notorious of cases.

Sheehan said many bishops have told him they have drawn on New Mexico's experience with sex scandals involving priests.

Sheehan took over the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1993 in the middle of controversy over sexual abuse by priests and allegations that then-Archbishop Robert Sanchez had sexual relationships with women.

Some 187 cases were brought against the archdiocese, and Sheehan expelled 20 priests. Only one of the 20 was ultimately defrocked, former Questa priest Vincent Lipinski, Sheehan said.

Since 1993, Sheehan said the Catholic Church in New Mexico has flourished.

The number of registered Catholic families has increased from 70,000 to 90,000, new churches are being built and 24 men have entered the priesthood, he said.

There has been only one allegation of sexual misconduct against a minor since 1994, Sheehan said.

"One is too many, but certainly it's not like it was before," he said.

Sheehan said the turnaround in New Mexico could happen nationwide with the new national policy and will encourage those who are angry and feel alienated from the Catholic Church to return.

He said the charter provides hope for Catholics angered by the recent scandals and also allows for accountability of bishops by having lay people on national and local boards that advise bishops on sexual abuse cases.

"There is some accountability for the bishops by having these lay groups working with us and making sure we do the right thing," Sheehan said.

The Vatican must authorize the policy to make it more than just a gentleman's agreement.

Sheehan said he will have a team make sure New Mexico is following the policy, and the archdiocese will implement any measures the state has not already taken immediately, ahead of Vatican approval.


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