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June 8, 2002
Column #1084

Catholic Bishops' Charter to Protect Children

     After six months of a "crisis without precedent" the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued a draft plan calling for important reforms in the way cases involving molestation of children by priests will be handled in the future.

     They cite Pope John Paul II's statement that "there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young." They even quote Jesus that it would be better for such a person "to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matt. 18.6).

     Therefore, they propose to "report any accusation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the proper authorities," and to "relieve the alleged offender promptly of his ministerial duties." The bishops proposed a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" that asserts future cases of "even a single act of abuse of a minor will bring about a request for laicization, even without the consent of the cleric." 

     However, a loophole is proposed for past acts of sexual abuse that would allow a priest "not diagnosed as a pedophile...with not more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor" to continue in ministry, if approved by lay-led review board.

     Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, says he will argue instead for a "zero tolerance" policy in Dallas: "I shall advocate a policy that says that one offense is one too many." 

     Undoubtedly, that will be debated by nation's 300 bishops in Dallas June 13-15 before the press and live TV.

     The bishops acknowledge, "the ways in which these crimes and sins were too often dealt with by bishops, have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion," and say "We are profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened pain." 

     That's not enough for David Clohessy, director of 3,500 people in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He says the draft "is silent on corrupt church leaders who have reassigned molesters and cover up their crimes. Where's the accountability? What, if anything, addresses the fundamental systemic, cultural forces that cause priests to molest and their leaders to deny and conceal it?

     "What consequences will fall upon the Bernard Laws and Cardinal Egans?" 

     The USCCB is making an important concession to Clohessy. Several SNAP people who were abused as children will be able to speak publicly to the bishops. They will demand "the defrocking of priests and bishops who knew or suspected children were being molested but remained silent; an end to `hardball tactics' which intimidate and re-victimize survivors; the lifting of all past and current gag orders; an accessible national data back of abusive priests and ex-priests; help from bishops in securing more and tougher mandatory reporting laws plus extending or eliminating statues of limitations." 

     These demands go far beyond what bishops are considering. What will be hardest, of course, is holding of bishops themselves accountable. Even prelates who have generally turned cases over to prosecutors and removed priests, such as Cardinal Keeler, have at least one case that was handled improperly, as he does. However Cardinal Law is in a totally different category. On Wednesday, 1,000 pages of documents were released on how Boston's diocese allowed 11 priests to continue in ministry even when some admitted abuse. Yet Law refuses to resign.

     The Pope, in a 1999 book called "Forgiveness" outlined the key principles: "Reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness." Reparation in this case must mean some heads must roll. Why?

     "Contemporary man experiences the threat of spiritual unfeelingness and even death of the conscience," writes the Pope. "This death is something deeper than sin: it is a slaying of the sense of sin." While those words predate this case, some dioceses have had a "death of conscience" that cannot be ignored, without more shame.

     Therefore, my column has urged the Catholic bishops to appoint a distinguished panel of citizens led by such Catholics as William Bennett or Joseph Califano, to conduct an independent inquiry before coming up with their own conclusions about the most egregious bishops who might be pressured to resign. It could publish a list of priests who had molested children, examine hardball legal defense tactics of some dioceses, and urge legal reforms to make it easier to prosecute predators.

     I'm impressed by the fact the bishops are holding meetings open to the press, are publishing tentative conclusions in advance and are giving their severest critics an opportunity to be heard in public.


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