Bishops Urge Zero-Tolerance
Exemptions Exist: Proposal Would Let Priests Who Abused in the Past Still Serve

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
June 5, 2002

A panel of Roman Catholic bishops is calling for a zero-tolerance policy against priests who molest children in the future, but is saying those who molested one time in the past could continue in the ministry under certain conditions.

Clergymen who molested a child once in the past could continue serving a parish if they undergo counseling and agree to public disclosure of their misconduct, the bishops said in a proposed national policy. All abuse would have to be reported to civil authorities.

"I think the safeguards are there," said Bishop Joseph Imesch, who oversees nearly 200 priests and more than 600,000 Catholics as head of the Joliet Diocese. "I think it's a very strong statement and begins to show we're serious."

The report by the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse will be put to a vote when bishops from around the country meet June 13-15 in Dallas.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, who led the panel, said the proposal would undergo extensive revisions before next week's meeting to incorporate opinions from other bishops.

"The committee had its most challenging debate with regard to priests with past acts of sexual abuse," Flynn said. "We are deeply sympathetic to the feelings of victims/survivors who have experienced years of suffering due to sexual abuse, but treatment and the power of Christian conversion (redemption) have made a difference in some cases."

Imesch responds

Imesch said more than 3,000 people from about 50 of the diocese's 192 parishes have responded since the diocese last month asked Catholics for input on how bishops should handle priests who sexually abused minors.

"The consensus is they don't want any priest accused of sexual abuse to be involved in any parish ministry," Imesch said. But a majority of respondents say that a priest who abused a minor decades ago could serve in an administrative position or a restricted ministry, he said.

Eleven priests associated with the Joliet Diocese have resigned or been suspended since late March because of past allegations of sexual abuse. In parishes where a priest has been removed, "there's great sentiment for allowing him to come back," Imesch said.

Suggestions criticized

Some are criticizing the panel's recommendations, saying the bishops are still failing to acknowledge their roles in the crisis.

"There's a lot of hair-splitting about abusers. There's very little about enforcement and virtually nothing about the failure of the leadership in the church," said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, one of the most active priests in aiding victims, said the document's contrition "is certainly extraordinary."

But "there have been so many promises made," he cautioned. If even one or two bishops continue to treat victims with hostility, "that will blow the bottom out of any credibility they wish to restore," Doyle said.

Trust in jeopardy

At least 225 of the nation's more than 46,000 Roman Catholic priests have either been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the scandal began in January.

Some say the bishops will not win back the trust of lay Catholics until some of their own are defrocked. J. Keith Symons and Anthony J. O'Connell both resigned as bishop of the Diocese of West Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting they sexually abused young men and boys, but both are still priests.

"Nobody is accepting any direct responsibility for the problem," said Steven Brady, president of Roman Catholic Faithful, a conservative group based in Petersburg, Ill. "Until some bishops pay the price, nothing's going to change."

Policy's authority

The document did not say the bishops would seek Vatican authorization to make the policy binding on each diocese. However, Flynn said the Holy See would be asked to review the plan and approve whatever changes may be needed in church law specific to the United States.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops already has guidelines for responding to molestation claims, but compliance is voluntary because each diocese reports to the Vatican — not the national bishops' organization.

Flynn said the latest proposal calls for national and local audits of how dioceses have responded to abuse claims, and that would ensure compliance. He said no bishop would dare to violate the policy in this atmosphere of crisis.

"Public disclosure would be sanction enough," said Flynn, archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. "Once whatever is passed is passed in Dallas, I can't imagine any bishop would say, 'I will not follow that.'"

The plan contains apologies to victims and emphasizes the bishops' commitment to reform.

"The sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the ways in which these crimes and sins were too often dealt with by bishops, have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion," the panel wrote. "We are profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened its pain by what we have done or by what we have failed to do."

Some say that while the proposal lays out a plan for reacting to incidents of abuse, it fails to explain how the problem became so widespread and doesn't address prevention measures.

"It seems like the only thing the Catholic bishops are serious about is protecting existing homosexual priests and bishops, even if they have a record of prior molestations. Judging by the influence of homosexuals in Catholic seminaries today, and the complete unwillingness of the Vatican or the American bishops to do anything about it, it's really difficult to foresee when this situation will improve, if ever," said Karl Maurer of New Lenox, vice president of the conservative group Catholic Citizens of Illinois.

The Vatican would be asked to swiftly defrock any child abuser in the future and all offenders with more than one transgression in the past. Currently, defrocking involves cumbersome appeals, and U.S. bishops for years have been asking Rome to streamline the process.

For priests accused of just one offense in the past, a diocesan review board — comprised mainly of lay people — would determine whether the cleric would return to public ministry. If the board concluded the one-time offender did not meet certain criteria, he would remain a priest but would not return to public ministry and would not be allowed to wear the priest's collar or celebrate Mass in public.

Church leaders should provide a complete description of a priest's personnel record if the cleric seeks to transfer to another diocese, the report said. The proposal also includes creating a national child-protection office. The president of the conference would appoint a review board — including parents — to examine annually how dioceses were responding to abuse, and bishops would create support programs for victims in each diocese.


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