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Bishops pledge response in abuse cases

By Chris Reidy, Globe Staff, 11/20/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
ASHINGTON -- Taking its first formal action on the sexual abuse of children by priests, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged itself yesterday to be a "healing ministry" and issued a five-point statement of principles for dealing with such abuse.

The conference president, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, said American bishops were also seeking ways to win Vatican approval of an expedited procedure to expel from the priesthood those who abuse children.

"Bishops, obviously, don't have the right to put these people in jail," Archbishop Pilarczyk said at a news conference that concluded the bishops' four-day conference here. "The bishops can't put them in jail. The bishops can't tie them up somewhere. And, consequently, many bishops feel there ought to be some way . . . to, as it were, fire a priest."

Bishops may suspend priests but not defrock them. Laicization, the process by which a Catholic cleric can be expelled from the priesthood, is lengthy and complex.

The principles for responding to child abuse, which include cooperating with police and reaching out to victims and their families, were first outlined in a speech Archbishop Pilarczyk delivered five months ago.

By endorsing those principles yesterday, the conference gave them additional weight. But they are not binding on individual bishops.

As with the question of ordaining women as priests, an issue that consumed much of the bishop's four-day meeting, the conference lacks the authority to impose a mandatory, uniform policy. The bishops in each of the country's approximately 190 dioceses are free to adopt or ignore recommendations of the conference.

For at least one self-described victim of James Porter, who has been charged with molesting more than 70 children while serving as a parish priest in Massachusetts, the two-page statement was not enough.

"How far do we have to go" to get a definitive policy? asked the purported victim, Dennis Gaboury of Baltimore. "The pope? . . . Who's the guy in charge here?"

The Associated Press reported that, in the executive session, Bishop Sean P. O'Malley of the Fall River, Mass., where Porter served, urged the bishops to require dioceses to set up standards for dealing with the problem.

He was informed that the bishops did not have the authority to do so, according to the AP.

On Monday, Gaboury and seven other men and women who say they have been sexually abused by priests picketed the hotel where the bishops were holding their meeting. Unexpectedly, they were invited to meet with three conference members led by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

After that meeting, Frank Fitzpatrick of Cranston, R.I., who referred to himself as a "Porter survivor," said he was pleased by Archbishop Mahony's apology, expression of concern and promise of prompt action.

But, informed of the statement the conference issued yesterday, Fitzpatrick said, "I hope this is only the beginning and not the end."

The statement the bishops issued yesterday said, "We commit ourselves anew to bring the healing ministry of our church to our people, to dialogue and pray with all those who have suffered and to foster opportunities for reconciliation."

The state recommended that, presented with allegations of sexual abuse, a bishop should:

- "Respond promptly to all allegations of abuse where there is reasonable belief that abuse has occurred."

- "If such an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, relieve the alleged offender promptly of his ministerial duties and refer him to appropriate medical evaluation and intervention."

- "Comply with the obligations of civil law as regards reporting of the incident and cooperating with the investigation."

- "Reach out to the victims and their families and communicate our sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being."

- "Within the confines of respect for privacy of the individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with members of the community."

John Walsh, a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, said he was reluctant to comment on the conference statement until he had a chance to review it. He said, however, that he believed the Boston archdiocese is already following the guidelines endorsed in the statement.

On Monday, Archbishop Mahony promised to continue a dialogue with Gaboury and others at the meeting. Archbishop Mahony said he would contact the group again "within a few weeks," Gaboury said.

Yesterday's statement by the bishops, however, made no mention of Archbishop Mahony's promise of a continuing dialogue.

Gaboury said he hoped that the conference was not moving cautiously because it feared that establishing a national policy might expose it to additional legal liability.

"It's a little like how I felt in the '60s," Gaboury said, referring to the time when he said he was abused by Porter. "I have that same sense of powerlessness. Priests were powerless to get rid of Porter. The nuns were powerless. The parents were powerless."

Now, he said, he looks for action on a child abuse policy by the church, and no one seems to have the power to impose reform.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 11/20/1992.
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