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Bishops Urged to Rethink Policy of Expelling Abusive Priests

Church leader opposes removing offenders from the priesthood. He also supports withholding some personnel records.

May 07, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The president of a nationwide federation of Roman Catholic priests called on U.S. bishops Tuesday to rethink the part of the church's sexual abuse prevention policy that allows the expulsion of abusive priests from the priesthood.

Guilty priests should never be allowed to return to public ministry, but neither should they be removed from the priesthood, Father Bob Silva of Stockton said in a speech here to the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

"We are not and cannot experience ourselves as a corporation or business institution. We are church," Silva said.

Silva also spoke out in favor of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's efforts to withhold some personnel records of priests and other documents from prosecutors.

Bishops must exercise "further vigilance" in protecting the confidentiality of priests' records, he said. In many jurisdictions, records are being sought by civil attorneys and criminal prosecutors to discover possible instances of sexual abuse.

"Even as the mood of the country makes the defense of civil rights the subject of editorials, within the church the right to confidentiality, the right to reputation, the right to application of justice within a reasonable amount of time, the right to appropriate defense are items needing more consideration," Silva told the priests.

After the speech, he said in an interview that Mahony is "trying very hard to protect the confidentiality" of priests.

Mahony, who at one point had said he would not withhold any records, has since argued that some communications between bishops and priests should remain confidential. To disclose them, the Los Angeles archdiocese has argued, would violate freedom of religion.

Attorneys representing victims have said Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston made the same arguments before he resigned as archbishop. These attorneys said that the public disclosure of such documents in Boston had revealed how extensive the sexual abuse of minors had been and how much misconduct church officials had covered up.

The U.S. bishops adopted a "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abuse last year. The policy requires that if a single act of sexual abuse of a minor has been admitted or established, the offending priest must be removed from any public ministry. The policy also allows -- but does not mandate -- removing abusive priests from the clergy, a process the church refers to as "laicization."

With that policy, "many priests felt that the bishops simply abandoned them," Silva said.

"Instead of the bishop being an advocate for the priest in his troubles, in the perception of many priests, he became an adversary. Many priests' immediate reaction was that they could not trust their bishop."

Silva said he did not expect the bishops would make any changes in their policy this soon after its adoption. But his remarks clearly reflected the views of many priests and drew applause from the several hundred gathered here.

"Ordination means we do have a commitment," said Father Robert J. McCann, a canon lawyer in the Diocese of Oakland. Even abusive priests will "always be part of our family, and to just throw them in the gutter? No family would do that," he said.

Abusive priests should be kept in the church under supervision so that they cannot harm children again, McCann added. "Are we doing more disservice to the world at large by setting him [abusive priest] up so he's going to live alone and no one is checking on him and he can befriend the neighborhood kids?"

But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse, called Silva's approach troubling and premature.

"The overwhelming majority of cases I'm aware of, priests have not been formally defrocked," Clohessy said.

"They still draw a pension, a salary, health benefits and all the rest."

"The problem of course is the track record that the bishops have compiled," Clohessy said. "It's hard, given the horrific disclosures of the last 15 months, at this early stage, to even imagine amending a document that we fundamentally think is weak and flawed to begin with."

Clohessy also criticized Silva's support for withholding documents.

"Confidentiality on the part of the accused has over and over again led to more abuse," he said.

"A priest's reputation, while important, absolutely pales in comparison with a child's safety. It's far easier for a priest to repair his reputation than a child to repair his or her emotional, psychological and spiritual life."

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