Vatican's Ruling May Affect Local Policies

By Kristin Gustafson
St. Cloud Times
October 19, 2002

Vatican concerns about specific elements of the U.S. bishops' sexual-abuse plan potentially could undo some of the recent actions St. Cloud Bishop John Kinney and St. John's Abbot John Klassen have taken in recent weeks to address clergy sexual abuse.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, summarized three general Vatican concerns outlined in a letter addressed to him as: provisions for action that are difficult to reconcile with church law, vague or imprecise language, and implementation of procedures.

The Vatican will withhold approval of the document until the issues are resolved.

Gregory said review boards are an example of "provisions for action" that concern the Vatican.

In recent weeks, the Roman Catholic Diocese and St. John's Abbey agreed, in different ways, to include more lay people in the process of addressing the sexual abuse issue that has affected Catholics locally and nationally.

Kinney and Klassen were unavailable for comment Friday after Gregory addressed the Vatican's decision to approve the charter on a temporary basis and asked U.S. bishops to give it further reflection and revision.

In June, both said they would abide by the bishops' charter the Vatican has found problematic.

Local reaction

On Friday, the Rev. William Skudlarek, abbey spokesman, said, "we would be looking closely" at whatever is decided regarding refinement of the bishops' plan. "But at the present time, we would be following our policy as stated," he said.

One issue the abbey "will be especially attentive to" is the role of the review board, Skudlarek said. Earlier this month, the abbey agreed to an external review board with investigative and supervisory powers as a part of a multiparty lawsuit settlement.

The Vatican

Church law carefully preserves the authority of the bishop within his diocese and is rarely required to get the consent of any person or council for decisions, so giving lay people more authority and the ambiguity about the role of the diocesan review boards is of concern to the Vatican.

According to canon law experts, "there are good pastoral reasons for this. It is not just a matter of power and control," said Sister Nancy Bauer, a member of St. Benedict's Monastery completing a doctorate in canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

"The Vatican, no doubt, wants to make sure review boards are not deciding the fate of priests rather than advising the bishop who is ultimately responsible for making those decisions."

Bauer said she hopes the Vatican will not insist on eliminating the review boards.

"If we have learned one thing from the sexual abuse scandal, it is that bishops must listen to lay people," she said.

When the diocese announced its Diocesan Review Board members, Kinney said he expects them to operate independently and want them to hold the "the Diocese of St. Cloud's feet to the fire" for its implementation of the charter, response to victims and protecting minors. In structure, the board serves as an advisory committee to Kinney.

The Vatican also wants to look at language used in the bishops' plan, Gregory said. For example, he said the term sexual abuse in the charter leaves ambiguity about what it refers to.

Other language requiring clarification would be the term credible allegation, which could set the removal of a priest from ministry into motion.

Gregory said the Vatican's concern about procedures includes making sure the canon law is not broken while dealing with a priest who is known to have abused a minor.

"Canon law has procedures for resolving conflicts just as civil law does," Bauer said. "Many of the principles are the same, including the right to due process. Both accuser and accused have the right to counsel, to produce evidence, and to be heard. There is a standard of proof required before a penalty is imposed on a priest, or anyone else for that matter. There is also a statute of limitations in canon law just as there is in civil law. Canonists fear these procedures are being overlooked."

Applying the same penalty - either dismissal from the priesthood or permanent removal from ministry - to all offenders, no matter the nature of the crime, date of the incident or number of offenses, perplexes many canonists, she said.

Adjusting the norms to make them in line with canon law will not satisfy those who want a so-called 'zero tolerance' policy," Bauer said. "We all know from civil law that due process takes time and that sometimes defendants are found guilty and sometimes they're found not guilty. I don't think we want a canonical system that is less just than our civil system."

One victim responds

"It's like they just don't get it," said Bob Ethen, upon hearing news of the Vatican's response to the charter. Ethen, St. Cloud, said a St. Cloud diocesan priest sexually abused him during the 1960s. "When are they going to say these guys are criminals pure and simple?"

Ethen settled a lawsuit against the Rev. James Thoennes and the diocese about the abuse in the 1990s, before the case went to trial. At that time, Thoennes gave a deposition in which he admitted molesting at least four young people in three parishes from the 1960s to 1980s. Other lawsuit documents show that then-Bishop George Speltz knew about some of the allegations against Thoennes, but reassigned him to another parish with the admonition to not have any youth live with him anymore or have overnight guests.

"Just based on their occupation they are treated differently?" Ethen said. "If is was a neighborhood guy, we'd want him out of there."

Soon after the charter was announced, the diocese of St. Cloud named Thoennes as one of three diocesan priests who received letters from Bishop John Kinney informing them that they can no longer celebrate Mass publicly, wear clerical garb or present themselves publicly as priests, which is required by the bishops' charter.


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