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On second thought

Religion | U.S. Catholic bishops revise guidelines on clergy sexual abuse

Issue: "Jim Talent: Majority maker," Nov. 23, 2002

THE 10-MONTH-OLD CRISIS over clergy sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church is far from over. At the Vatican's prodding, the U.S. bishops at their semi-annual meeting this month in Washington revised guidelines drawn up last June in Dallas. The revisions offer greater protection to priests accused of abuse and roll back attempts by lay groups to have a greater say in church policy.

Priests, many feeling unfairly judged by the misdeeds of others, generally hailed the changes; victims' groups denounced them as steps backward that will hide uncomfortable truth from church members and discourage victims from coming forward.

The crisis arose last January when, despite stonewalling by church officials, it was learned that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston had reassigned a priest that he knew had been repeatedly accused of sexual abuse. That case, involving priest John J. Geoghan, led to a settlement of $10 million by the archdiocese with 86 victims.

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Hundreds of lawsuits quickly popped up across the country involving other priests. Most plaintiffs were males who claimed that they had been molested in their teen years. Some said the incidents had happened as long as 20 or 30 years ago, but with therapy they had "recovered" their long-repressed memories of them. Since January, at least 325 priests have resigned or been removed from their posts because of sex-abuse allegations, an Associated Press study found.

The most damaging revelation for the hierarchy was that bishops routinely had covered up allegations and quietly transferred troublesome priests to other parishes and dioceses without informing officials there of the priests' behavior.

Multimillion-dollar settlements drove some dioceses to the brink of bankruptcy. Some disillusioned members dropped out of the church-as many as 30 percent in Boston parishes, with a 25 percent drop in collections.

Pounded in court and in the press, the bishops at their June meeting in Dallas were largely a subdued, chastened, listening lot. They drew up a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. They promised to reach out and help victims of abuse instead of treating them as enemies. They agreed to report all cases of alleged abuse of minors to the police. They adopted a zero-tolerance policy for alleged abusers: one strike, out of the ministry. They lifted the statute of limitations, which required victims abused as minors to report it by age 28.

They also set up a lay National Review Board to assist with investigations and appointed Oklahoma governor Frank Keating as chairman. And they created a national office at their Washington headquarters to monitor compliance.

However, many priests complained that the policy deprived them of due process. Some of the accused insisted they were innocent but suffered ruined reputations. Indeed, plaintiffs dropped charges in some cases where they were challenged. The Vatican, which reserves ultimate oversight of abuse-discipline cases for itself, also raised questions about the new policy. Four American bishops huddled with four Vatican officials in Rome and negotiated revisions to the policy.

In announcing the proposed revisions this month, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Illinois, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, insisted the policy remained "substantially" the same. Zero tolerance is still there, he said; once even a single act of sex abuse "is admitted or established," the offending priest will be removed permanently from ministry and, if the case warrants it, from the priesthood.

But there were some significant changes: The statute of limitations is restored except in special cases approved by the Vatican. In reporting abuse of minors, bishops are required only to obey local laws. (Not all states require clergy to make such reports. The bishops pledged, however, to report all cases to civil authorities.)

In a bishop's preliminary, private investigation into allegations, he may consider "advice" from the local lay review board, but the board now is excluded from taking part in the investigation or disciplinary action. In hearings and appeals by church tribunals composed of priests, alleged victims are excluded. Also, a Vatican office must review all cases of guilt before disciplinary action can be taken (although the accused is placed on administrative leave during adjudication).

"This is a return to secrecy that perpetuated and fostered the abuse," objected Susan Archibold, president of Linkup, a victims' group. "This vote widens the gulf between bishops and the victims and lay people in the church," added a dismayed Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Responding to critics, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who worked on the revisions in Rome, said: "We are sometimes asked to choose between the accuser and the accused. We cannot choose one or the other. We have to choose both. We have to love both."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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