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Spotlight Report

Bishops' policy flawed, priests say

By Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 10/19/2002

 Related stories
Bishops hopeful on abuse policy
Law says Boston rules will endure
AG: State law takes precedence
Changes in canon law may follow

 The conflicts
A look at where canon law and the Dallas policy proposal differ

 Documents
Exchange of letters between the Vatican and the US bishops

NEWTON - Boston Archdiocese priests, while deploring the sexual victimization of children, said yesterday the Vatican's refusal to fully approve the US bishops' sexual abuse policy is a necessary step to safeguard clergy rights.

While outraged by the crimes committed by fellow priests, the men said they worried that a false accusation by a malicious or misguided person could ruin their careers.

Some priests in the archdiocese have repeatedly complained that their rights under canon law have been ignored by church officials eager to forcefully address a crisis they have been accused of long ignoring.

The Vatican and the US church will meet soon to resolve their differences over the rules.

''I could be accused tomorrow,'' the Rev. Jack McCormick of St. Theresa's Church in Billerica said with a shrug, as he stood outside Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton.

Any priest who is a molester should be removed from the priesthood, he said. But before such action is taken, any accusation must be thoroughly investigated by the archdiocese to make sure it is credible, he added. And that has not happened in all cases, said some priests gathered at the Newton church to attend a previously scheduled meeting of the Boston Priests' Forum, which represents about 300 priests. The agenda for the meeting focused on the rights of priests accused of sexual abuse.

Bishops have become over- zealous in wanting to take a tough stance on abuse, in part to deflect blame for their own role in the crisis that has convulsed the US Catholic Church, priests said.

''The general feeling among priests around the country is we were hung out to dry,'' said the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady's. In Boston, 24 priests have been suspended since the sex abuse scandal broke in January.

But Cuenin also worried that the move by the Vatican would be viewed by victims and the public as being too protective of priests. Changes sought by the Vatican would help restore a better balance between the rights of priests and victims, Cuenin said.

Some accusations against priests ''may be bogus,'' said the Rev. Henry G. Chambers of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Millis. ''We want to make sure the accused priests get their day in court, as well as the victims.''

The church rules proposed by the bishops in June, including ''zero tolerance'' for priests who faced credible allegations of abuse, were drawn up in a short amount of time under intense public scrutiny, priests said.

''Decisions were made under the heat of pressure and stress to take some solid kind of action to satisfy the demands of the public,'' said one retired priest, the Rev. Vincent Poirer.

More time and more discussion was needed among all parties - including priests, he said.

The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, one of the forum's leaders, said the archdiocese has not told accused priests that, under canon law, they can be represented by counsel at hearings in which ''they have been summarily dismissed. There's been a rush to judgment and a presumption that they are guilty.'' Now that the Vatican has reacted, that should change, he said.

Bullock said criticism of the Vatican by survivor groups was unfounded because the proposed changes are meant to increase protection for priests, not reduce safeguards for victims.

The priests, some in collars, some in khakis and flannel shirts, met for two hours with a canon lawyer and civil attorney. About 250 priests attended, the largest forum gathering thus far. The large turnout underscored the concern among priests about defending their rights, Cuenin said.

James F. O'Brien, a civil attorney from New York who addressed the forum, said the archdiocese had broken canon law by suspending priests without hearings. O'Brien represents the Rev. Victor C. LaVoie, suspended by the Archdiocese of Boston in July for allegedly fondling a youth more than 20 years ago, as well as three other priests he would not name.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law will meet with priests next week, his first meeting with them in more than six months.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 10/19/2002.
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