Twin Cities: Catholics Take First Steps to Implement Abuse Policy

By Stephen Scott
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
June 22, 2002

Last week's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was just the beginning of their response to clergy sexual misconduct, say the victims, observers and the bishops themselves.

"For the sake of our children, we must fight this temptation to magically assume that somehow a new day has dawned in Dallas," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Parishioners, hold out for real change. Real change is what your children deserve. Real change will keep them safe. Don't turn away. Don't settle for less."

Already in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, church leaders have met to discuss implementation of the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Their first steps hit close to home: removing three past offenders from nonparish jobs in the archdiocese.

Although the archdiocese did not identify the three last week, Archbishop Harry Flynn had previously identified such priests as the Revs. Gilbert Gustafson, Michael Stevens and Joseph Wajda.

Under the archdiocese's previous sexual misconduct policy, they were allowed to serve in administrative capacities but not in parishes or anywhere "children may be harmed."

The U.S. bishops' new policy is tougher, requiring that even a single past instance of sexual abuse of a minor will result in removal from any capacity within the church.

"When there's a parting of people who have been close associates, there's sadness," said Auxiliary Bishop Richard Pates. "It's like any death or separation.

"There's also resignation that this ultimately is what needs to be accomplished for healing in the church. We're going to comply, but do so with respect for the individuals."


Several bishops, including Flynn, said past offenders actually helped the church by remaining in nonparish jobs rather than being released to secular society with no oversight.

Gustafson, for example, pleaded guilty in the early 1980s to sexually abusing a White Bear Lake altar boy over five years and admitted to sexual relations with two other boys, a police report said. After serving 41/2 months in jail, he often shared an "honest account of his failings," according to Flynn, with various Catholic and Protestant clergy groups as well as seminarians.

Stevens, who pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct with a minor in 1987, worked on the archdiocese's computer services team. Wajda, who in 1990 settled a lawsuit over alleged abuse of a 12-year-old boy in 1973, was judicial vicar for the archdiocese's Metropolitan Tribunal.

But the will of victim/survivors and the Catholic laity clearly called for no loopholes in the bishops' new policy.

In fact, the influence of the victims and the voice of the laity were underlying themes of the bishops' deliberations.

"Much has been said and written about the laity's growing distrust of bishops," Commonweal magazine editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels told the bishops in Dallas. "Let me take note of something else: the hierarchy's distrust of the laity.

"We can restore trust in the church and in church leadership only if church leadership begins to trust the church, the 99 percent of the church that is the laity. We can no longer indulge the slothful habit of postponing the church that we need until the next papacy, until the seminaries are full, until the controversies are resolved, until some faithful remnant rules the church."

Flynn reminded the bishops throughout their Dallas deliberations that their task at hand was singular: protecting children and young people from sexual abuse.


By way of implementation, however, significant provisions of the policy turn to lay people and church outsiders for oversight.

"It's important for us to have a far-reaching consultation and involvement of lay representation," Pates said. "A wide-ranging group of individuals allows us to see issues from a wider perspective, not solely an institutional perspective. It is certainly a vision that was presented at Vatican II and is gradually being implemented and experienced in the church."

At the same time, the bishops expressed their desire for Vatican approval of the sexual-abuse charter.

The policy can be implemented immediately by bishops throughout the United States, and it is intended to be. But papal approval, or "recognitio," would make it binding under church law. There is no timetable for such approval.

"Without the recognitio, the charter -- as much as we are committed to it -- leaves us exactly where we were in 1992," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops. "The recognitio makes this particular law and means we are bound to it."

The bishops had adopted principles and guidelines for handling cases of clergy sexual abuse in the early 1990s. But they never became binding on all dioceses. While many complied and developed their own policies, some dioceses did not, and that led to the expose that unearthed the current scandal five months ago.

"It has been quite disappointing to me to sit here at the same point we were at many years ago and recalling all the recommendations that were made under Bishop Kinney's panel," Flynn said.

Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud was chairman of the bishops' original committee on sexual abuse, which made the earlier recommendations. Flynn and former Archbishop John Roach from St. Paul-Minneapolis were members.

"I have a lot of emotions about this," Kinney said. "This is not the first time we've addressed this. I'm sad we were not able to do much more before. I'm relieved we're at least addressing the issue now. I wish we could have moved a lot quicker."


Approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to protect children and young people from clergy sexual abuse:

Dioceses will:

Help victims heal.

Respond promptly to allegations and implement a lay-majority review board.

Not require confidentiality agreements.

Report abuse of minors to civil authorities.

Remove priests and deacons for any admitted or established sexual abuse of a minor, past or future.

Publicize standards of behavior and boundaries for clergy and other church personnel.

Communicate with "transparency and openness."

Establish "safe environment programs."

Perform background checks of all diocesan and parish personnel who have regular contact with minors.

Adequately screen ordination candidates.

The U.S. bishops will:

Set up a National Office for Child and Youth Protection, which will make public reports.

Set up a National Review Board to oversee the office, with Gov. Frank Keating, R-Okla., as chairman.

Inform the Vatican of the charter.

Forward a cleric's complete personnel record when he takes a new assignment.

Cooperate with other churches and denominations in research about abuse.

Strengthen priestly formation programs.

Additionally, the 10 dioceses of Minnesota and the Dakotas agreed to:

Set up an independent advisory committee to review the dioceses' policies.

Set up independent auditors to review diocesan procedures.


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