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Spotlight Report

US bishops to propose ousting abusive priests

Draft precedes Dallas meeting

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 6/4/2002

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is proposing to ask the pope to defrock every priest who sexually abuses a minor in the future, as well as any priest who has abused more than one minor in the past, according to a draft policy to be released today.

The bishops, as expected, will also suggest a requirement that every diocese in the country report all accusations of sexual abuse of minors to secular authorities for investigation. And the bishops are expected to offer an apology, not only for the behavior of abusive priests, but also for the mishandling of abusive priests by bishops.

The recommendations are part of a "Draft Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" that the bishops will debate and vote on at a meeting in Dallas next week.

The draft was released to bishops yesterday, and a copy was obtained by the Globe. It will be issued publicly in Washington, D.C., where the bishops' organization is based.

"Our beloved church is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times," the draft document says. "From the depths of our hearts, we express great sorrow and profound regret for what the Catholic people have had to endure.

"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. They have strained the bonds of trust that should unite us."

The proposal was crafted by an eight-member committee of bishops that has met over the last several months in an effort to respond to the clergy sexual abuse crisis roiling the church.

"This is a real turning point," Bishop George H. Niederauer of Salt Lake City, a member of the sexual abuse committee, said in a telephone interview. "Never, until now, have we successfully committed ourselves to this, and convinced each other and the church that we must follow these principles."

The director of communication for the bishops, Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, said the bishops will try to reach out to victims and victims groups while meeting in Dallas next week, a step he called "very unusual." Niederauer said the bishops have become increasingly aware of the need to consult with laypeople as they proceed on this issue.

The Dallas meeting carries enormous symbolic importance for the Catholic Church in America, which is suffering a crisis of confidence amid widespread reports of clergy sexual abuse of children. Much of the abuse occurred prior to 1985, church officials say, but the extent to which bishops often failed to remove abusive priests from ministry is just now coming to light.

"This is their last chance to get this right," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. "They've got to show people that they're sorry, and that they're going to make sure this never happens again."

Any national policy, if it is to be mandatory, would require approval by the Vatican.

In an effort to make sure the American church and Rome are in rough agreement, 12 US cardinals and the leaders of the bishops conference met with the pope in Rome in April, but since that time a variety of lower-level Vatican officials have expressed concern about mandatory reporting requirements, public disclosure of abuse allegations, and zero-tolerance measures.

Theologians have said it is unlikely that the bishops will approve anything in Dallas unless they are certain of the Vatican's support.

Under the proposed policy, priests accused of sexual abuse would be promptly relieved of their duties and referred for a medical evaluation, as long as that does not interfere with criminal investigations. "We repeat the words of our Holy Father in his address to the cardinals of the United States ... that `there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young,"' the draft states.

Trying to walk a fine line on the controversial issue of whether "zero tolerance" for abusers is fair, the draft report recommends that in the future a single proven instance of sexual abuse would result in a request to the pope that the offending priest be laicized -- or defrocked -- even without the cleric's consent. As for past offenders, the proposed policy calls for asking the pope to defrock any priest who has been diagnosed as a pedophile, meaning that the priest is sexually attracted to prepubescent children, or any priest who has sexually abused a minor more than once.

The proposed policy does not specify how the veracity of an allegation would be determined.

Some priests who have abused a minor once, were never diagnosed as pedophiles, or received treatment from psychologists could be allowed to continue in ministry under the policy. But a diocesan review board would have to examine the priest's status, and "in every instance, the victim of the abuse will be offered the opportunity to contribute to the evaluation and recommendation," the draft report states.

Dioceses would be required to check the backgrounds of all diocesan and parish personnel who have contact with children and young people -- a step many dioceses already take. And in making new assignments or transfers, bishops would be required to fully report a priest's record, including anything that might raise questions about fitness for ministry.

In an effort to avoid the secrecy that has characterized the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse in the past, the bishops are being asked to ban legal confidentiality agreements "except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim." And the proposed policy calls for church leaders to adopt practices of "transparency and openness" in dealing with the public and the press.

The proposed policy does not address the question of whether seminaries should attempt to screen out gay applicants -- an issue the US cardinals discussed during the visit to Rome. "This is not an encyclopedic treatment about what everybody thinks about priesthood," Niederauer said.

The policy proposes establishing a national Office for Child and Youth Protection to help dioceses implement the programs and produce an annual public report on their progress. The office's work would be reviewed by a panel that would include parents.

"We are not going to change the hierarchical nature of the church in its essentials," Niederauer said. "But we should pledge ourselves, openly and publicly, to set up a structure that can help us continue to do this."

The proposal does not call for a national day of prayer and penance. The cardinals meeting in Rome had suggested that idea, but it had become controversial because some people argued that the bishops should not be asking laypeople to pray over mistakes made by bishops.

"We're a church, a body of Christ, and of course we must do that, but it will be much more healing and much more effective for everybody, especially victims and their families, if we have acted to protect children and say we are sorry for what's happened in the past and this is how we are resolved to correct it," Niederauer said.

Victims' advocates, who have not yet seen the draft proposal, said that over the next week they will push the bishops to go even further.

Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, wants the bishops to support legislation in each state that would extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases.

And David Clohessy, the Survivors Network national director, wants the bishops to provide personnel files to law enforcement authorities seeking to review records to determine whether allegations of abuse can be substantiated and whether the statute of limitations has expired.

"Those two decisions have been made in virtually every case to date by untrained, inexperienced, and fairly biased church officials," said Clohessy. "They ought to be made by impartial professionals."

A variety of lay groups are issuing recommendations that could affect how the bishops view the draft proposal next week. Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago held listening sessions at which thousands of people offered suggestions for the Dallas meeting; at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, students and faculty drafted letters to Bishop Daniel P. Reilly. In Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law's commission on clergy sexual abuse is hoping to complete a report Friday so Law can use it to shape his actions in Dallas.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com. Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/4/2002.
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