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Spotlight Report

Priests' organization seeks rights for accused

Letter to Law cites due process concerns

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 8/21/2002

 In-depth
Accused of abuse and absolved, Msgr. Michael Smith Foster returned to parish work sobered by his experience.  
Coverage of the Foster case
The Boston Priests Forum, which represents 250 of the 900 priests of the Archdiocese of Boston, is demanding rights for priests accused of sexually abusing minors, as the organization's members express concerns that a priest might be falsely charged.

''Priests are deeply troubled and need to be assured,'' the eight priests who head the organization wrote in a letter to Cardinal Bernard F. Law. ''Your Eminence, the priests are hurting. Our morale has plummetted.''

The letter was triggered by the rapid-fire removal of 20 local priests from their jobs this year under a new zero-tolerance policy imposed by Law following revelations that in the past he had allowed abusive priests to remain on the job. The chairman of the priests forum, the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, says at least four of those priests insist they are innocent.

''Priests are very worried about due process,'' said Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon. ''Everybody is fearful of being accused, and some of us are convinced that some of these priests are not guilty.''

The priests' letter reflects a new role for the organization, which began last summer as a support group for priests concerned about burnout and then this year took on the task of examining issues that contributed to the abuse crisis. Now, Bullock said, the organization feels compelled to become the first local organization to speak out on behalf of priests' rights, as a steady stream of decades-old accusations leads to the ouster of numerous priests, some of whom deny any wrongdoing.

Law's deputy, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, met with Bullock yesterday in response to the letter and promised that Law and the regional bishops of the archdiocese will meet with priests after Labor Day, Bullock said. Law last met with large gatherings of archdiocesan priests in February.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, declined comment on the specifics of the Edyvean-Bullock meeting, but said chancery officials are concerned about the rights of accused priests.

''The archdiocese of Boston is fully aware of, and sensitive to, the concerns felt by all priests across the Archdiocese of Boston,'' she said. ''The archdiocese has tried to address those concerns, and it is our intention to continue to do so in a systematic fashion.''

The issue of priests' rights has been gaining currency over the last several months, and experts believe it is a concern for the Vatican, which is weighing whether to approve a national clergy sex abuse policy endorsed by US bishops in Dallas in June.

In Boston, Law imposed a ''zero tolerance'' policy in January that requires the removal of priests from ministry any time the archdiocese has reasonable cause to believe that the priest abused a minor.

That policy has led to the removal of the 20 priests, including most recently Monsignor Michael Smith Foster, the judicial vicar, who preempted his ouster by asking to be placed on leave as he fights an allegation that he abused a minor nearly 20 years ago.

Law has not publicly described the magnitude of the crisis in Boston, but in early June, during a legal deposition, he agreed with a lawyer who said that 85 Boston-area priests had been accused of sexually abusing minors, of whom 70 were still alive.

Under current archdiocesan policy, Law's deputies are supposed to advise accused priests of their rights under canon law - which include the right to appeal an ouster to the Vatican - and to offer ''pastoral care.'' In some cases, the archdiocese has helped accused priests find housing or legal counsel.

The archdiocese also has promised to attempt to restore the reputation of any priest who is cleared of an accusation, but the archdiocese has not cleared any priest of an accusation since the sexual abuse crisis exploded in January.

Bullock said that the priests forum is considering holding its own talks with canon lawyers to discuss priests rights within the church. He said he would advise priests not to go to chancery alone when summoned to respond to an accusation, but to go accompanied by an advocate or legal representative.

''Now, they go in by themselves, they're told the charge, they're told to go back to their parish, inform the staff, and leave within hours,'' Bullock said. ''The process seems to us to be quick, to be cruel, and to be cold.''

A leading victims' advocate, David Clohessy, said he would support an effort to make the process of investigating allegations more open, but said the number of false accusations against priests to date has been ''tiny, tiny.''

''Historically, bishops have consistently erred in believing in priests' innocence, and it's kind of hard to imagine, given the shortage of priests, that any bishop would suddenly reverse dozens and dozens of years of thinking and practice,'' said Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''Our presumption is, if you do have to make a judgment, the judgment should always be that the accuser is telling the truth, because the harm is so great if you're wrong.''

But Bullock said accused priests are entitled to the same presumption of innocence that they would have if they stood accused in civil court.

''There is a rush to judgment, a presumption of guilt, an eviction from your residence, and we don't know what our rights are under canon law,'' Bullock said.

The leader of a lay reform group that has pledged to support both victims and ''priests of integrity'' yesterday expressed sympathy for the priests' concerns.

''Every priest deserves due process, and there should be a procedure that is transparent, in terms of understanding how the investigation is going to go on,'' said James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful. ''There is now great uncertainty about what happens when an allegation is made.''

The Boston Priests Forum was founded a year ago by three priests who wanted to start a support group to talk about issues such as stress. But the organization's membership exploded in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, and a new leadership team has been meeting this summer to try to figure out what role the group might play in the archdiocese.

Bullock said members of the priests forum do not question the severity of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

''There's no question about the enormity of what happened, and the scandal it's caused, and the damage to children,'' he said. ''Where there is guilt and reponsibility, that guilt and responsibility have to be borne, but we are concerned about due process.''

Bullock said priests are heavily burdened by the scandal.

''Priests are very, very angry; some are very depressed, and they are deeply scandalized and shamed by this whole crisis,'' he said.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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