The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church

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Bishops gather on abuse reforms

Clerics look to revise policy, assure critics

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/10/2002

For the second time in this extraordinary year, the assembled Catholic bishops of the United States will try this week to reassure a restless flock that they are committed to purging the priesthood of sexually abusive men.

But as they gather in Washington, D.C., to revise a sex-abuse policy they approved just five months ago, the bishops are facing a chorus of questions about whether, in the end, anything has changed.

The revised policy they are expected to approve drops the requirement that all bishops report allegations of sex abuse to local authorities and introduces provisions that reassert the authority of bishops and the rights of priests.

Bishops insist the changes are minor and hew to the policy of Pope John Paul II, who said in April: "There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young."

But critics, including the Boston-based lay group Voice of the Faithful, the two major American organizations representing victims, and Massachusetts's top prosecutor, worry that the bishops are edging back toward the rules and practices that allowed the church to keep abusive priests in jobs with access to children. The critics are alarmed that the revised policy requires lay boards that review abuse cases to be subordinate to bishops and to work in secret, that it allows the Vatican to decide which priests can be ousted, and that, in some states, it will allow bishops discretion about whether to report abuse to police.

"Discretion requires trust, and they've lost that trust," said Tom Reilly, the state attorney general.

Reilly said he objects to a plan by the bishops to abandon the requirement in the Dallas policy that all bishops report allegations of sexual abuse to public authorities. The proposed revisions, which are to be voted on this week, say only that bishops should comply with local state laws, which do not, in many states, require such reporting.

"You shouldn't have to pass a law to force someone to report the rape of a child to law enforcement, and the lesson from here in Massachusetts, where there was no requirement [for clergy] to report, was that they didn't," Reilly said. "A good step toward restoring trust would be to say, `You don't need to pass laws, because we're going to do it ourselves.' But that's not what's happening, and it's a clear signal to those states that don't have those laws to pass them immediately."

But the bishops say the proposed revisions to the policy, which were demanded by the Vatican, will strengthen the protection of children, while protecting priests' rights.

"I doubt that there will be any revisions to the revisions, because these were put together by a representative group from us and the Roman Curia, and if we pass this and send it back [to the Vatican], we should get affirmation," said Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas, a member of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse and the chairman of the bishops' communications committee. "I, frankly, thought the revisions were very good, and don't see them weakening what we did in Dallas."

Another member of the sexual-abuse committee, Bishop Robert F. Vasa of the diocese of Baker, Ore., agreed.

"I think everyone's going to be very pleased with the emendations of the Holy See, and I don't really anticipate any great consternation about the additional Roman provisions," Vasa said. "The modifications do allow for appropriate penalties for those who have abused children in the past, and yet they also preserve a sense of equity and fairness in terms of preserving the rights of the accused. The modifications will not affect what most bishops are going to do anyway, and lend a greater balance and solidity to the guidelines."

The vice president of the bishops conference, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., predicted approval this week.

"I suspect the revised norms will be approved pretty much as they are, and I do support them," he said. "They clarify points which needed some clarification, such as the definition of sexual abuse, and the due process question is more clearly defined."

And a spokeswoman for Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., one of the most vocal defenders of the Dallas policy, said he "is fine with" the changes. Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who will be attending the bishops' meeting, has not yet said what he thinks of the proposed revisions. But his spokeswoman said they will have no effect on how the Archdiocese of Boston handles abuse allegations against priests.

At their annual fall meeting, which is scheduled to run from tomorrow through Thursday, the bishops plan not only to revise their abuse policy but also to discuss an unusual proposal to hold the first national plenary council in more than a century, a gathering of bishops to discuss issues including how to promote holiness, priestly celibacy, and sexual morality.

As with their June gathering in Dallas, this week's meeting in Washington, D.C., will be the subject of an unusual amount of attention, from the news media, interest groups, and the general public, all focused on how the bishops plan to address the sex-abuse crisis. A variety of lay groups, including Voice of the Faithful, are planning to descend on Washington to hold meetings and vigils outside the bishops' gathering and to protest the bishops' proposals as well as the Vatican's announcement last week that it is considering whether to ban gay seminarians.

"The revised norms are meant to secretly protect pedophile priests and ignore justice for victims," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represents victims of former priest John J. Geoghan. Garabedian argues that the proposed changes will result in greater secrecy by allowing some bishops not to alert prosecutors about allegations, by enforcing a statute of limitations that may bar prosecution of some cases, and by describing the work of lay boards as "confidential."

Claire Noonan, a spokeswoman for Call to Action, a Catholic organization that advocates for reforms including the ordination of women, said the bishops have lost too much credibility to adopt the revisions.

"We don't trust the bishops anymore," she said. "By their incompetence, neglect, complicity, or well-intentioned misguidance when they had sole responsibility, they lost all credibility with lay Catholics. In Dallas, they realized that they needed the laity if they were to regain our confidence. By weakening the role of lay boards and making them confidential under these revisions, they are back to where they started."

But supporters of the changes say the critics are using the issue of clergy sex abuse to further their broader agendas for change.

"Rogue Catholics should be ignored," said William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who particularly criticized a group of organizations assembled under the umbrella name, Catholic Organizations for Renewal, based in Melrose. "Anyone who has tracked these disaffected Catholics knows their goal is to reconstruct the church from top to bottom."

The discussion of the proposed changes is made more difficult by the fact that they are written in the arcane language of canon law, and even among canon lawyers there is an ongoing debate about the practical effect of some of the provisions.

One canon lawyer who has been a longtime advocate for victims rights, the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, gave the revisions a mixed report card.

"The revisions are mixed, but on balance they appear to be a significant step backward," Doyle said. He offered a variety of criticisms, saying the process of adjudicating complaints is "almost totally clericalized," that the lay review boards "have no decisive power," and that "the norms show no evidence that survivors were consulted for any meaningful input at any stage of the process."

"The Vatican and US bishops may think that the approval of these norms at the November US bishops' meeting will bring closure to this phase of the sexual-abuse problem," Doyle said. "This is delusional. The process whereby the norms came into being and the norms themselves guarantee that the survivors, their supporters, and lay people and concerned clergy, in general, will continue to demand credible accountability."

None of the bishops contacted by the Globe last week planned to propose any specific changes to the proposed policy revisions, although some said they plan to raise questions.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, said he had some concerns about the lack of a mandatory reporting requirement, saying, "I think we help ourselves when we do report." But, he said, "the bottom line is anyone who has offended is out of ministry, and that stands."

Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit, often a maverick voice at the bishops' conference, seemed to cast doubt on that proposition, however.

"I'm not totally satisfied with them, but the norms do seem to be an improvement because they do allow for the possibility that a person who isn't a confirmed ephebophile or pedophile could be treated and taken back into ministry, and I think that makes sense," he said. "I was opposed to `zero tolerance, ' because it treated each situation as though everyone was the same, and I know that's not the case."

Gumbleton is one of a handful of bishops who has publicly questioned the lack of accountability for bishops in the proposed policy. Officials of the bishops' conference have generally responded that only the pope can hold bishops accountable.

"The whole approach of the bishops fundamentally still avoids the basic problem, which is the unaccountability of the bishops themselves, and there is nothing in the new document where the bishops truly take responsibility and hold themselves up to be accountable," he said.

But Gumbleton said he wasn't sure what to expect this week, saying, "I don't think all the bishops are going to say this is the final word, because the bishops didn't have a say about who the four representatives were of our conference or of the other side, but on the other hand, it just may be that the bishops are so weary with this whole thing, they may just say, ` Let's get it over with, pass it, and move on'."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com .

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/10/2002.
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