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Bishops' Panel Meets Amid Dissent

July 31, 2002|MICHELLE MUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A panel set up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to address allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests held its first meeting Tuesday and was immediately accused of failing to make its policies as tough in practice as they are on paper.

On Monday, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests alleged that cases in the archdioceses of Louisville, Ky.; Chicago and Milwaukee, Wis., and the dioceses of Richmond, Va.; Tulsa, Okla.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Lexington, Ky.; Albany, N.Y.; and San Diego indicated lax enforcement of the new policies, set June 14 by U.S. bishops meeting in Dallas.

"Some of the violations since Dallas are obvious and immediate," said SNAP executive director David Clohessy, who, along with three other members of the victims' group, met with the church panelists Tuesday.

After their first meeting, members of the National Review Board--13 prominent Catholics who will advise the bishops' conference on reports of molestation--sidestepped specifics of the allegations, but said they would request information from all 194 dioceses on every sexual abuse case and review the information when they meet again Sept. 16.

Elements of Policy

Under the new policy, bishops in each diocese must report allegations of sexual abuse of young people by priests to civil authorities. Those accused are to be removed from public ministry, away from places where they could be in contact with minors, as soon as the allegations are deemed to be credible.

But the victims' organization says that in the nine cases it cites, the alleged perpetrators in five dioceses or archdioceses were left in the ministry even after the policy change was announced, while church officials in the other four fought to keep court cases secret or, as in the San Diego case, deceived parishioners about the amount of money spent on settlements.

"If they are going to rely on the reports of the bishops, then we question that," said Barbara Blaine, the president of SNAP. "We hope they are going to go to other sources."

The problem of pedophilia in the Catholic church was documented long ago; in 1982, for example, the bishops' conference briefed two dioceses on the civil liability risks involved with child molestation cases. But institutional change comes slowly, and despite the new policy for priests, only the Vatican can defrock a priest or depose a bishop.

"The bishop is the head of the local church. Other bishops can no more sanction him than a governor of a state [can] sanction other governors," said the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, bishop of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., and president of the bishops' conference.

"But there's nothing to prevent a conference of bishops to call for the resignation of a bishop. We've seen the destruction of confidence in the leadership over the last several months. No bishop wants to add his name to that list."

In what became a refrain at a news conference after the review board concluded its meeting, Frank Keating, governor of Oklahoma and the board chair, promised to make Catholic schools and sites safe.

"People are afraid to put their children in a Catholic school. We want to excise the criminals and the predators and those evil individuals who have soiled their vows," Keating said. "We intend to shout to the highest heavens and identify them."

Many Disappointed

Some clergy and many parishioners were disappointed that the new policy did not summarily remove accused molesters from the priesthood.

But they expressed hope that the review panel would quickly take up its responsibilities. These include producing an annual report on the church's management of pedophile priests and commissioning studies on the causes of the current crisis and how far it extends into the Catholic community, with statistics on victims and perpetrators.

But some victims' advocates and practicing psychologists expressed doubts that the makeup of the new board--named just last week--would offer succor to the victims.

Board member Nicholas P. Cafardi, a legal counsel to the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 13 years, is too closely aligned to the church, victims' advocates say.

Michael Bland, a psychologist and former priest who has worked for more than 10 years with victims of clerical sexual abuse as a clinical counselor at the Center for Psychological Services in Oak Lawn, Ill., is the only panelist who is a victim of priest molestation, but he works part-time for the Archdiocese of Chicago and has ties that are too close to the church, say SNAP officials.

Another member, psychiatrist Paul R. McHugh, has testified on behalf of accused sexual abusers and is a critic of "recovered memory" therapy, which has triggered many of the accusations against priests nationwide.

Richard Gartner, a psychoanalyst who has written extensively on the sexual abuse of adolescents, questioned McHugh's inclusion on the board.

"To have the only neutral health professional be someone who is skeptical of victims' stories sends the wrong message to victims, and the wrong message to the rest of us," Gartner said.

More than 250 of the nation's 46,000 priests have been suspended so far this year.

In California, more than 60 priests are being investigated for alleged sexual abuse, and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese has apologized for transferring--and not suspending--miscreant priests.

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