Some Religious Orders Not under Abuse Policy

By Peter Smith
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
June 30, 2002

Roman Catholic bishops across the nation have begun implementing their new policy of removing priests from ministry for committing even a single act of child sexual abuse.

But they still are working out how to extend that policy to priests in religious orders, who comprise one-third of the nation's priests and have their own hierarchies answering directly to the pope.

Some 14,968 of the 45,191 priests in the United States belong to more than 300 orders, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits, whose activities range from public teaching and preaching to cloistered prayer.

Leaders of these religious orders will hold a national conference in Philadelphia from Aug. 7-9, where they are being urged to adopt the guidelines approved earlier in June by the bishops for diocesan priests.

The bishops pledged then that no known sexual offenders will ever again work in the Catholic Church in the United States.

"It is very important that religious communities adopt something almost identical," Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles told bishops at their meeting in Dallas, where they approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Church observers say they have little doubt that most or all religious orders will comply with the bishops' new charter - and some already are doing so.

"Our policy is very much in line already with the policy the bishops have adopted," said the Rev. Michael Higgins, provincial for the Chicagobased Holy Cross Province of the Passionist order, which operates a Newburg Road monastery and the adjacent St. Agnes parish in Louisville.

While some orders' older policies still hold out the possibility that some priests who abused could return to ministry after rehabilitation, aligning the orders' policies with the bishops' ban on such ministry "certainly will be a major conversation at the meeting" in August, Higgins said.

Marita Eddy, spokeswoman for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (leaders of male religious orders) said that about a third of the 14,968 religious priests work in parish settings.

The Archdiocese of Louisville has 186 diocesan priests, 65 religious priests and 83 religious brothers, according to its most recent directory. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which includes Southern Indiana counties near Louisville, has 157 diocesan priests, 104 religious priests and 52 religious brothers.

Even now, an order priest needs a bishop's permission to minister in his diocese. And since the Dallas meeting - as bishops have begun scouring their personnel files for any past allegations against diocesan priests that would require action under the new directive - they've been asking religious orders to do the same.

"Basically what is happening is the bishops are writing all the religious superiors and saying, 'Is there anything I should know?' " said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the national Catholic magazine America.

The Conventual Franciscans, for example, with 135 priests in Indiana, Kentucky and six other states, are reviewing their files to see if they need to report names to bishops, said their spokesman, Brother Robert Baxter.

Baxter, whose order is based in Mount St. Francis in Floyd County, Ind., added that while provinces of religious orders extend over several states, there is "no loophole" that would allow a problem priest to be quietly transferred to a new state.

An abusive priest "will not be put back in ministry," he said.

The archdiocese in Louisville has been hit this year with nearly 150 lawsuits, alleging past sexual abuse by clerics. The accused include two deceased Conventual Franciscan priests - the Revs. Kevin Cole and Daniel Emerine - and a Franciscan brother who has long since left the order, Francis Dominic.

Another lawsuit alleges abuse by James Griffith, a deacon in the Passionist order who was convicted of similar criminal charges in 1988. Griffith lives at a Passionist residence in Chicago and has long been removed from public ministry, only doing "in-house" work, according to Higgins.

Religious priests staff several local parishes - such as the Conventual Franciscans at St. Anthony Church in Louisville and the Dominicans at St. Louis Bertrand in Louisville and St. Rose in Springfield, Ky. Religious priests and brothers also teach at schools, such as DeSales and St. Xavier in Jefferson County.

Others religious priests work in monasteries, such as the Trappists at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, Ky., and the Benedictines at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Spencer County, Ind.

While far removed from the public in rural settings, such monks do interact with people visiting on retreat, attending Mass or studying at St. Meinrad's seminary. Spokeswoman Mary Jean Schumacher of St. Meinrad said she believed that any priest who had offended would not be allowed to say Mass in public but could remain in the community.

Brian Reynolds, chief administrative officer for the Archdiocese of Louisville, said priests working at an archdiocesan school or parish would be subject to the rules adopted by the bishops, whether or not their religious order adopts the policies.

"To the degree that there is an assignment related to bishop and diocese, they would be subject to the charter," Reynolds said. "To the degree their assignments are related to their order, it would be the responsibility of their order."

Reese, the magazine editor, said religious orders have communities in which an abuser can live under supervision while not doing public ministry - an advantage over dioceses where virtually all ministries are public.

"It's been easier for them to deal with these problems because they have more things that priests can do that are not public ministry," he said. "They can be involved in the internal administration of the (religious) community."

Reynolds said any priest who abused even once would have their "faculties," or permission to conduct public ministry, removed by Archbishop Thomas Kelly, who is himself a member of the Dominican order.

Kelly authorizes such faculties not only for diocesan priests but for religious priests, even those operating in remote monasteries, in his diocese.

The only exception within the territory of the archdiocese - which covers Central Kentucky between the Ohio River and Tennessee - is Fort Knox, whose Catholic chaplains are supervised by a separate military bishop, Reynolds said.


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