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Spotlight Report

Leaders of orders OK plan on clergy abuse

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 8/11/2002

Leaders of Roman Catholic men's religious orders yesterday overwhelmingly approved a plan to protect children from abusive clerics while still allowing them to remain in the priesthood.

The new policy is modeled after a plan adopted by US bishops in June, but it is not binding. The policy calls for the creation of a national review board to monitor how religious orders handle offenders. It leaves open the possibility that priests who violate restrictions set by their orders might be dismissed.

On the last day of its annual meeting in Philadelphia, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the umbrella group for the more than 300 religious orders in the United States, also said it would improve support services for victims and develop educational programs to prevent abuse. And it pledged that abusers would receive treatment and remain under close supervision.

Leaders of the superiors conference reiterated a vow to abide by the spirit of the zero-tolerance policy approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in June, which calls for removing from active ministry priests involved in even a single case of abuse, no matter how long ago.

But insisting that some abusers can repent or be cured, the religious superiors said they remain unwilling to permanently expel molesters from what they called the family of the priesthood, especially because their members take a vow of poverty when they join the order. Abusers instead will be given administrative jobs out of contact with minors.

''The whole church is about reconciliation,'' said the Rev. Austin Walsh, who heads the religious order Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity, based in Arlington, Va.

The challenge facing the church, he said, is how to ''reach out compassionately and justly to victims'' while ''not coddling [abusers], but not taking them out and shooting them, either.''

''We are a fraternity,'' he added. ''We might have to remove men from ministry, but we can't throw them out of the order.''

Because the superiors' conference has no executive power, officials said that the plan would not be binding and that cooperation among orders would be voluntary.

As a result, some abuse victims called the plan meaningless.

''This is not a new chapter for religious orders in this crisis,'' said Mark Serrano, a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''This is the same story we've heard before.''

In the document approved yesterday, the religious superiors expressed regret for failures to monitor and discipline abusive priests.

''We are deeply sorry for that and publicly apologize for whenever and however we have failed victims or families,'' they wrote. ''These religious priests or brothers who have molested children or adolescents have broken the bonds of trust invested in them. We feel this hurt deeply.''

Religious orders such as the Jesuits, Benedictines, and Franciscans account for nearly a third of the 46,000 Catholic priests in the United States.

Whether the orders are governed by the bishops' policy has been unclear. Religious-order priests are somewhat independent of diocesan control as they serve in broad territories, with some assigned outside the United States. This has led many advocacy groups to charge that they are all but unaccountable.

Tensions between bishops and leaders of religious orders became apparent last week when the Rev. Canice Connors, the conference president and a Franciscan priest, said in his opening address that the bishops had caved in to public and media pressure when they adopted a one-strike-you're-out policy for abusive priests. The policy, Connors said, did not allow for the possibility of redemption.

In that speech, he said abusive priests are being scapegoated. He denounced zero tolerance as a ''war slogan'' that has spurred a ''thorough search, identify, and expel mission'' by the church in its zeal to satisfy demands to crack down on abusers.

In an interview, Connors said his address had been intended to draw attention to the fact that all abusers were being lumped together.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

This story ran on page A5 of the Boston Globe on 8/11/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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