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Bishops Challenged on Policy for Priest Removal

July 12, 2002|From Associated Press

More than 50 of the nation's 46,000 Roman Catholic priests have resigned from the priesthood or been permanently removed from the ministry under a policy on sexual abuse adopted by Catholic bishops a month ago.

As a result of the policy--intended to keep priests who molest children away from parishioners--those men may no longer wear the Roman Catholic collar, celebrate Mass with parishioners or represent the church in any public fashion. Their removals are in addition to at least 250 priests removed from duty earlier this year before bishops approved the new policy on June 14 in Dallas.

The removals are the most visible sign of the immediate effect of the new policy, which bishops adopted under public pressure after months of revelations about how priests were kept in their jobs or transferred to other dioceses despite warnings of sexual abuse.

Some of America's bishops have been struggling to implement the policy. A few priests removed from public ministry under the plan have appealed to the Vatican for reinstatement--and some rank-and-file Catholics have supported them. Several bishops have also delayed ousting errant clergy until they thoroughly review key parts of the policy, such as its broad definition of sexual abuse. Public pressure is mounting in new quarters as grand juries in several cities have begun their own investigations of priestly abuse.

The new guidelines "raise some real questions about compatibility with our traditions," said the Rev. Thomas Green, an expert on church law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Many of the clergy removed in the last months held positions ranging from hospital chaplains to administrators of marriage tribunals and diocesan cemetery departments--posts in which 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 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, some Ohio 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 misconduct.

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

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, traveled to Rome last month to deliver the bishops' 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 dioceses in the U.S.

Until then, some bishops said they will hold off on parts of the plan.

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