Gettelfinger Makes a Stand
Local Bishop Was One of the Few to Vote Against Revised Abuse Policies

By Jessice Wehrman
Evansville Courier & Press
November 14, 2002

Evansville Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger was one of seven U.S. Catholic bishops Wednesday to vote against new policies by the U.S. Catholic Church aimed at preventing child sex abuse by priests.

Gettelfinger, who was supportive of most of the new policies, argued that while the policies would give bishops the power to remove priests from public ministry after one act of sexual abuse of a minor, it would not give them the discretion to return priests to the ministry who had sought forgiveness and experienced a spiritual conversion.

His arguments, he said in an interview, were based largely on the case of the Rev. Michael Allen of Celestine, Ind., who admitted to a sexual relationship with a teen-ager more than 20 years ago. Allen was later removed as pastor there.

Gettelfinger cited the biblical story of St. Peter, who denied Christ three times but later redeemed himself to become the head of the church. It's unfair, Gettelfinger said, to inflict new law on Allen years after he did everything required of him by old church policy.

But Allen's victim, David Prunty, said he does not believe Allen should be a priest again. "Allen jumped through all the hoops and therefore it's OK for him to go back to the ministry," he said. "I have a lot of problems with that."

Gettelfinger said he is sympathetic to the victims and is trying to maintain a balance of sensitivity to the victims and fairness to priests. It's a balance frequently spoken of this week, as bishops wrestled to revise policies first adopted at a June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that were later rejected by the Vatican. Those initial policies led to Allen's dismissal.

Gettelfinger said he voted for the Dallas policies because he thought it was important that bishops speak with "a common voice" in the immediate aftermath of the scandal.

The reworked policies -- supported 246-7 with six abstentions -- aim to give priests more due process, reassert bishops' authority in dealing with abuse and require bishops to follow all applicable civil laws in reporting abuse to local authorities. Bishops vowed to report all abuse to authorities, however.

The policies will now go to the Vatican, which is expected to recognize them as law in the U.S. Catholic Church. They will be up for review in two years.

Victims groups say the policies adopted by the conference do little to protect children.

"Fundamentally, it deepens the rift between Catholic lay people and their leaders," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It'll make it harder for victims to come forward and harder for Catholic parents to feel reassured."

He said the rules require victims to report abuse by the age of 28, though bishops can receive a waiver from the Vatican to report older victims. He also said it will require more involvement by Vatican bureaucrats and less from church laity.

"The bishops in essence said, `sexual abuse -- been there, done that, we're moving on,'" he said.

Prunty said he does not believe Allen is rehabilitated: "He never apologized to me," he said. "He only apologized publicly when he was cornered.

"Why am I expendable? Why is the life of one person expendable while Allen's life needs to be held aloft?"

Allen, reached by telephone, declined to comment, saying he wanted to talk to Gettelfinger first.

But Martha Schepers, 55, of Celestine, said she wanted Allen reinstated at St. Peter Celestine Catholic Church.

"He really is a good priest," she said. "When this first came out, he admitted to it and everyone was just in shock -- this is not the guy we know. But I think Catholics have been taught to go to confession, say they're sorry for their sins, be forgiven and life goes on. I think he's been punished enough."

Gettelfinger said under the new norms, Allen would presumably have to be reported to Rome. It's unclear whether or what the process would be were he to appeal.

However, the fact that Allen admitted having sex with the teen- ager does not help him.

"These new norms give bishops the flexibility to get rid of a priest," Gettelfinger said. "It doesn't give them the flexibility to make the judgment that the person is reinstated."

Other bishops said any priest who admits to sexual abuse can no longer serve publicly as a priest.

"A person found guilty of sexual abuse will not be allowed to resume active ministry in any circumstance," said Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill.

Gettelfinger said he did not intend to do anything with current cases -- other than take reports of abuse -- until the Vatican approved the bishops' revised policies.

He also said he was disappointed that the bishops have not moved forward on his proposal to provide safe houses for priests who were pedophiles. By firing pedophile priests from their duties, the church is sending priests out in the world who might need treatment, he argued. Safe houses, he said, would help prevent abuse by defrocked priests.

Bishops said they hoped the new policies would help the church move on from a drama that has gripped it for much of the year and resulted in the removal or resignation of some 300 of the nation's 46,000 priests.


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