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After Norms, Debate Rages

Register Correspondent
March 13, 2005

WASHINGTON — Advocates of victims of sexual abuse and accused priests are both unhappy two years after American bishops adopted special norms for dealing with priestly sex abusers. Their reasons differ. The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National

Review Board for the Protection of Children said he also has concerns he’d like bishops to address, and he plans to bring them to their attention in a letter.

Complaints and speculation about changes to sexual abuse policies come after a joint commission of four U.S. Church officials and four Vatican officials met in Rome for several days in January and February to discuss possible adjustments to the norms to be considered by the entire conference of U.S. bishops at their June meeting in Chicago.

Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and spokesman for the U.S. members of the joint commission, isn’t commenting about any recommendations of the joint commission.  “Discussions have occurred. The basic tenets of what came out of Dallas will remain, but there may be some fine tuning,” said James Dwyer, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “Whatever is decided, the promise made by bishops in Dallas will be met.” Dwyer said members of the joint commission agreed not to discuss any details of their meeting until all bishops meet in June.

The norms were implemented on an experimental basis for a two year period beginning in March

2003. New Vatican approval would presumably have to be given again this year, whether revisions are made or not.

The Bishops Conference Child and Youth Protection reported Feb. 18 that more than 600 diocesan priests and deacons were accused in 2004 of sexual abuse of minors, with the majority of allegations of abuse occurring between 1970 and 1974. Seventy-one percent of the alleged offenders were deceased, already removed from ministry or had been previously laicized when the 2004 allegations were made.

The 2004 accusation figures are based on a bishops’ conference- commissioned survey by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The figures bring the total number of alleged victims since 1950 to 11,750, the number of accused priests to 5,148, and the Church’s expenses to more than $840 million. Three dioceses have declared bankruptcy.

The promise in Dallas was that bishops would have a “zero tolerance” approach to those priests, deacons and other religious who commit even a single act of sexual abuse. A complex charter and a set of norms — tentatively approved by the Vatican — were established to aid bishops in delivering the promise.

“We think the norms are working and we will help with any changes that would be housekeeping kinds of details to the charter and the norms,” said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer who chairs

the National Review Board. “Any review in June should result in minimal changes at best, because the process is working. “

Vague Language

Though Cafardi is generally pleased with the charter and norms, he believes vague language regarding the use of diocesan lay review boards — which are supposed to assist and advise bishops — have led to harsh treatment of priests who may have been wrongly accused of sexual abuse.

Cafardi said he plans to recommend that bishops at their June meeting discuss clarifying the role of lay review boards because he’s concerned that some innocent priests have been suspended or fired because of lax investigations of weak allegations. “There’s a vast disparity, from diocese to diocese, in the way investigations into accusations are carried out, and that’s a concern,” Cafardi said. He said in some dioceses, lay review committees are being used as makeshift investigative units to determine the legitimacy of allegations.

“Some dioceses simply have the accused talk to the lay review board,” said Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University Law School. “If the board sympathizes with the accuser, it results in dismissal of a priest. When your investigation consists of merely having the accuser speak to the lay review board, I’m not sure you’ve conducted a real investigation. The charter and the norms do not make clear what constitutes an investigation.” Cafardi was for 13 years legal counsel to the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and he still represents numerous religious orders both as a canonist and as a civil lawyer.

Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI official who recently stepped down as executive director of the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, concurred that diocesan review boards are being used inappropriately in some cases to investigate allegations of misconduct by priests.

Old Charges

Joe Maher, an outspoken critic of the sex abuse charter and norms, said it’s likely members of the joint commission discussed what he describes as growing concerns in the United States and Rome about zero tolerance as it applies to groundless accusations.

“The whole concept of zero tolerance is inappropriate,” says Maher, who founded Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Detroit-based organization devoted to defending priests. “The Church is founded on conversion and redemption of the sinner. We’re always taught ‘love the sinner but hate the

sin.’ We’re taught that conversion is the foundation and mission of the Church. Thus, redemption is the whole goal so we can get to heaven, and zero tolerance is completely contrary to Catholic teaching and Scripture.

Zero tolerance says that some sin is unforgivable.” Maher said that according to his sources, the joint commission also discussed concerns about the canonical term “prescription,” known in secular law as “statute of limitations.”

“Prescription has been discarded in order to accommodate zero tolerance,” Maher said. “Many of the priests are being removed for accusations that go back 25 or 30 years. There’s no way that charges that old can be fairly investigated. All one has to do to get rid of a priest today is pick up a phone and call in an accusation. We could lose all of our priests.”

Though bishops overwhelmingly approved the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Norms, some expressed concerns at the time about the rights of priests who might be falsely accused and about the need to accept redemption on the part of priests who formerly abused.

Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger, of Evansville, Ind., pleaded with fellow bishops to consider the cases of St. Peter and St. Paul, both of whom committed scandalous, grave sins but were later given the opportunity for redemption.

“Bishop Gettelfinger has no problem with zero tolerance for current or future abuse,” explained Paul Leingang, director of communication for the Diocese of Evansville. “He has problems with the retroactive nature of going back 25 or 30 years without regard of any legitimate review or examination of the individual accusations. He finds that troubling.”

Though Maher claims the joint commission wants revisions, a spokesman for victims of sexual abuse says any revisions inspired by the meeting in Rome would only make the charter and norms worse than they are.

“The real rub for us is that there’s still very sporadic enforcement,” said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests. “The charter is very vague, and it allows each individual bishop to do with these accusations exactly as he sees fit.”

Clohessy said he’s troubled by reports he’s received from sources at the Vatican and in the United States about the joint commission’s recent meeting. Based on that information, Clohessy said, it appears the commission was primarily concerned with the rights of accused priests.

“It’s a disturbing emphasis, because there’s already an excessive preoccupation with the privacy rights of priests,” Clohessy said. “The problem has not been that there has been a violation of the rights of priests, but that the safety of children has been completely discarded. We can’t find any bishops who advocate that the charter be strengthened, only watered down.”

Maher said it’s unlikely the bishops will do anything to alter the charter or the norms at their June meeting, even though he thinks they should. “In order to fix the problems with the Dallas charter and norms, the bishops would need to gracefully rescind the zero-tolerance policy and abide by canon law and Church teachings, which don’t allow for zero tolerance,” Maher said.

Maher said rescinding the charter and norms, or substantially altering them to respect the rights of priests, would result in a public relations nightmare he believes the bishops are unwilling to endure. Instead of official action, he said, individual bishops will simply take the parts of the charter or norms they believe are moral, ethical and in accord with canon law, and leave the rest.

“We’re not a corporation and not a business. We’re the holy Roman Catholic Church,” Maher said. “We have to follow the Gospel of Jesus and our own Church teachings. We’re about conversion of sinners and the redemptive powers of grace. We’re called in this world to represent Christ, not what’s politically popular, and that comes with a lot of pain and a lot of suffering and a lot of contradiction.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.




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