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Bishops face challenges implementing tough policy on clerical sex abuse

Posted: Friday, July 12, 2002

A month after their historic meeting on sex abuse, some of America's Roman Catholic bishops have been struggling to implement their sweeping new policy to keep priests who molest children away from parishioners.

A few priests removed from public ministry under the plan have fought back and appealed to the Vatican for reinstatement -- and some rank-and-file Catholics have supported them. A handful of bishops also have delayed ousting errant clergy until they thoroughly review key parts of the policy, such as its broad definition of sexual abuse.

The new guidelines ''raise some real questions about compatibility with our traditions,'' said the Rev. Thomas Green, a church law expert at The Catholic University of America.

Despite such concerns, many bishops have moved swiftly to carry out the plan.

More than 50 of the nation's 46,000 priests have either resigned from the priesthood or been permanently removed from ministry under the new policy. Those men may not wear the Roman collar, say Mass with parishioners or represent the church in any public fashion.

Those 50 removals are in addition to at least 250 priests taken off duty before bishops approved the new policy on June 14 in Dallas.

Many of the newly removed clergy held positions ranging from hospital chaplain to administrators of marriage tribunals and diocesan cemetery departments -- posts where they had no contact with children. Some had already retired, but several were leading churches.

Some priests have challenged their punishments. Five in the Chicago Archdiocese have asked the Vatican to return them to public duty, and Cardinal Francis George has asked the Holy See for guidance on how to respond.

The Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which claims about half of U.S. priests as members, said he is just starting to collect information about appeals in other dioceses. But he said many priests have expressed concern that the policy ignores their due process rights under church law.

Silva was particularly angered by arguments from some Catholics that priests with a history of misconduct have a moral obligation to step down.

''It is not to take the high road simply to acquiesce,'' Silva said. ''Everyone has a right to appeal.''

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is handling the U.S. appeals, has not commented on the cases.

In the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, some parishioners at St. Michael the Archangel Church were upset when Bishop James Hoffman removed the Rev. Robert Fisher, who was convicted in 1988 of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl. Fisher spent 30 days in jail and has undergone four years of counseling; parishioners knew of his past misconduct.

The Rev. Thomas Quinn, Toledo Diocese spokesman, said there were concerns that Fisher and other rehabilitated priests like him were being punished twice.

''The bishop didn't have much choice if he was going to follow the bishops' direction and that's a concern for all of us. We're all getting splattered by the same paintbrush,'' Quinn said.

Green said he knew of no ban in canon law of what civil law calls ''double jeopardy,'' which prohibits prosecuting someone twice for the same crime.

However, Green did see a conflict between the bishops' policy and canon law's statute of limitations on abuse cases, which allows alleged victims up to age 28 to bring a claim. Under the new plan, allegations by older victims could lead to a priest being removed and Green thinks that could lay the groundwork for successful appeals to the Vatican.

''Right now, our statute of limitations would still hold,'' he said. ''We could not in the United States contradict that until the Holy See itself authorizes that as part of the review process.''

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, traveled last month to Rome to deliver the policy to Vatican officials -- a first step toward seeking their approval. He has said he is confident the Holy See will authorize the document, which is necessary to make it binding on all U.S. dioceses.

Until then, some bishops said they will hold off on parts of the plan. Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Ky., said he will not move to defrock abusive priests -- another option under the policy -- until the Vatican approves the Dallas document.

Four Cincinnati Archdiocese priests with a history of sexual misconduct will not be removed from public ministry until Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and his administrators review the definition of abuse and other parts of the policy, archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said.

Abuse is defined in the document as any inappropriate contact with a child for the sexual gratification of the adult -- regardless of whether it involves force, physical contact or whether any harm is apparent.

Andriacco would not identify the four or release details of their misconduct, but said one had been working outside the United States, another was elderly and ''semi-retired'' and two others were under supervision while working in jobs where they had no contact with children.

''We need to match up that definition with the files of those four priests who offended and had been returned to ministry to find out if in fact that was child abuse under the definition,'' he said. ''It's going to happen as soon as we can do it consistent with what is right.''

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On the Net:

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/



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