Do Rules Exempt Certain Priests?
Maida Says No, but Religious Orders Say Vatican Must Clarify
By Kim Kozlowski
July 15, 2002
Trenton -- Like many parish priests, the Rev. James Vedro was a beloved cleric. At St. Joseph Catholic Church in Trenton, he initiated a massive remodeling plan for the church and school.
But unlike many of his colleagues, he didn't answer to the archdiocese in which he worked. Instead, he was a member of the Crosier Fathers and Brothers, a Catholic religious order that reports directly to the Vatican. So when the Rev. Vedro was removed from his parish last month amid allegations of sexual misconduct, it was an unusual situation. He was removed by his major superior -- not Cardinal Adam Maida -- for sexual misconduct with an adult, not a minor.
The child sexual abuse policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops technically covers only diocesan priests, but more than 5,000 of the nation's 21,000 brothers and priests who are members of religious orders also serve in parish work. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, 300 of the 785 priests are from Catholic orders. Although they serve under Maida, they also answer to a religious superior bound by separate policies.
?!--Crisis in the church: Priests and sex abuse --?
Archdiocese officials insist they will hold those priests to the same high standards as their own. But some fear that the lack of a consistent policy for those in Catholic orders creates a loophole for thousands of priests, at least until the Vatican approves the new policy adopted by the bishops.
The inconsistency is a substantial flaw that few realize, said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Every Catholic institution, whether it's a diocese or a school or a hospital, clearly needs to take the protection of children seriously," Clohessy said. "Otherwise, perpetrators move among those institutions and continue to have access to kids."
Maida acknowledges that the 34 religious orders that serve in Metro Detroit are independent. But as a practical matter, Maida said during the bishops conference, "when you have all the bishops of the United States accepting this as the guidelines and implementing it, in fact all the religious will be bound by these same guidelines."
In Vedro's case, Crosier officials took action without Maida's intercession. Whether that cooperation continues or whether bishops and religious superiors will agree on when sexual misconduct allegations become credible enough to take action remains an open question.
Religious orders differ
Religious orders of men, such as the Jesuits and Capuchin Friars, differ from diocesan priests in that they take a vow of poverty and live together in a community setting while serving in ministries. Frequently, they work in schools, retreat centers or in service to the poor.
They answer to a major superior, instead of a bishop. However, when their ministry takes them to a diocese, religious orders of men are also under the authority of the bishop.
Most orders are based internationally and are overseen by the Congregation for Religious Life at the Vatican in Rome.
Next month, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men will gather for its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Before the meeting, the major superiors will host a workshop to discuss the bishops' policy on sexual abuse of children. Unlike the bishops, the major superiors will not adopt the policy, according to the Rev. Canice Connor, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.
When the bishops' policy is reviewed by Rome, Vatican authorities will look for compatibility and differences in the canon law that governs religious men.
Victims groups note risks
Until then, Catholics must have faith that the dioceses and orders will not hide allegations or shuffle priests.
"Each order has its own policy," Connor said. "They are very similar to the bishops' policy. We remove someone during an investigation and proceed with consequences. It wouldn't differ very much from what a bishop would do."
Victims groups are convinced that the global nature of orders only heightens the risk.
One of the most glaring problems with predatory diocesan priests is they have been moved among parishes within a large geographic area, Clohessy said. But religious order priests carry out their ministries all over the world.
"The odds that a victim or lay person would connect the dots (of abuse) are much less," Clohessy said.
What's more, different policies between the bishops and the religious orders for dealing with sexually abusive priests create an environment that allows priests to escape accountability and enables bishops to avoid holding them responsible.
"That's been the pattern of the past," Clohessy said. "Bishops and major superiors have ducked and dodged jurisdictions when it's convenient."
Adhering to own policies
For now, religious orders and bishops are following their own separate, if similar, procedures.
"Basically what is happening now is bishops are contacting religious superiors and asking if they have any priests in my diocese involved in sexual abuse," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit-run national Catholic weekly. "If there is, he ... is being pulled.
"No religious priests are going to be in any priestly ministry if he was involved in sexual abuse."
The Crosiers, for instance, conduct an internal investigation and remove priests from their ministries when allegations are deemed credible. They also turn all allegations over to civil authorities, as required by law in Minnesota, where the Crosiers are based.
"Our intent was to protect the public, especially children and vulnerable adults," said David Kostik, spokesman for the Crosier Fathers and Brothers. "Our policy reflected we would investigate allegations and work with victims to make sure we could provide them with the help they needed to heal."
Recently, the Crosiers launched an investigation into every sexual misconduct allegation the order had on file and removed Vedro in Trenton; the Rev. Neil Emon, formerly of St. Alfred in Taylor; and a Twin Cities priest who is expected to return to his ministry.
The order informed the bishops of each diocese where the priests were working, including Maida.
The cardinal plans to be in touch this summer with the superiors of all orders represented in the archdiocese. So far, the outreach has been informal, according to spokesman Ned McGrath.
The archdiocese knows of no other religious order members with allegations of sexual misconduct.
But McGrath said: "If the religious order knows about it, it would act."
IN THIS SERIES
TODAY: The new policy on sex abuse has not been formally adopted by Catholic religious orders.
SUNDAY: In its first month, the Catholic zero-tolerance policy for abusive priests has hit home in the parishes of Metro Detroit's 18 accused priests.
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