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Catholic Church struggles to deal with disciplined clerics

By Patricia Montemurri, Detroit Free Press

November 14, 2010


Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said he has met with disciplined priests and listened to their stories. He said the men are not ostracized, but "they did a really awful thing, and part of it is, they bear the consequences of their behavior.

DETROIT — When the Rev. Ronald Williams died this summer, St. Mary of Redford parishioners started an online drive to have the former priest buried in his old parish in Detroit.

Parishoner Marge Staten said church members wanted to remember him in the church he helped restore.

The Archdiocese of Detroit wouldn't allow it. Out of deference to sexual abuse victims, church policy prevents a disciplined cleric from returning to his previous parish. Williams' funeral was held at neighboring St. Scholastica Church.

Nearly a decade after the priest sex abuse scandal ignited in the U.S., the emotional issue continues to split the Catholic Church. This summer, Pope Benedict XVI's visits in Europe drew massive protests, prompting him to say victims are the priority.

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said the church remains committed to helping victims while continuing to deal with disciplined priests.

"I am not out to try to destroy anyone's affection for a priest — guilty as he might be of this crime," said Vigneron. "That doesn't mean everything was evil in this person's life."

'They bear the consequences'

The Catholic Church still doesn't know what to do with priests like Williams, those accused of sexually molesting minors.

Although the church enacted a zero-tolerance abuse policy in the U.S. nearly a decade ago — with credibly accused priests being barred from public ministry — it has not developed uniform standards for how to support and monitor those disciplined priests.

Many of the accused priests proclaim their innocence, despite both criminal and church investigations that have found the accusations against them valid — if not always prosecutable because of statutes of limitations.

Vigneron, the Detroit archbishop, said he has met with disciplined priests and listened to their stories.

"Some are much more at peace with the aftermath of what they've done and ... one or another does find it difficult to acknowledge where they've taken their lives," said Vigneron. He said the men are not ostracized, but are welcome at gatherings of priests and are helped financially when the need arises.

But, said Vigneron, "they did a really awful thing, and part of it is, they bear the consequences of their behavior."

'It's a tightrope'

Mary Jane Doerr, associate director for the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledges that there aren't standardized guidelines for monitoring priests restricted from ministry, who are supposed to live a life "of prayer and penance."

"There really isn't a template," said Doerr. "The goal is always to create a safe environment, keeping the children safe and balancing that with the needs of the man — who, being human, needs meaningful work.

"It's a tightrope. It's a tension."

Her office is currently surveying 195 dioceses in the U.S. on their monitoring practices of priests.

Accused priests are under no legal obligation to accept church monitoring. But, by doing so, they retain ties with the church's support structure — financial stipends, therapy, mentorship and spiritual guidance.

Before the reforms of 2002, archdiocese officials often sent men accused of abuse for treatment. In several cases, they were returned to ministry.

"We thought we could restore them," said Michael Talbot, the Michigan Appeals Court judge who chairs the Archdiocesan Review Board that oversees abuse complaints. "We were forgetting the victim in the equation."

Talbot said many local parishioners believe that some priests have been unjustly accused.

"I don't know of any who looked them in the eye and said, 'This is true.' They've looked them in the eye and said, 'It's unjust and unfair.' And folks are operating out of a lack of information, and they have to trust that we didn't pull this out of the air."

'We have to do a ... better job'

For the Archdiocese of Detroit, Williams' case is a tragedy on many tiers — for the victims, the church and the priest.

In the years after Williams' removal, archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath said, the Detroit archdiocese tried to help the priest.

From 2002-07, as Williams appealed his removal through internal church trials that went all the way up to Vatican review, he drew his regular archdiocese salary and benefits. But in 2007, Vatican officials upheld Williams' removal from ministry, and the paychecks stopped.

The archdiocese gave Williams a onetime stipend and agreed to reimburse him for 50% of the cost of his medical premiums.

Like Williams, many of the removed priests struggle to provide for themselves, said Joe Maher, who started a defense fund for accused priests called Opus Bono Sacerdotii, which means "Work for the Good of the Priesthood."

"I think that we have to do a much better job of taking care of our own, where Father Ron died penniless, destitute and alone," said Maher. "He had literally nothing."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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