- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

A panel of Roman Catholic bishops yesterday proposed to defrock priests who sexually abuse any child in the future, but recommended mercy toward priests who already have committed a single offense.
"We are deeply sympathetic to the feelings of victims/survivors who have experienced years of suffering due to sexual abuse, but treatment and the power of Christian conversion has made a difference in some cases," said Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, in defending the one-past-offense rule.
Archbishop Flynn led an ad-hoc committee of bishops, which yesterday released the six-page draft document on sexual misconduct. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will debate the panel's recommendations at its June 13-14 gathering in Dallas, then issue a final set of policies.
Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who was not on the committee, praised the proposal as balancing all concerns.
"It's a strong document that includes core principles I feel are important, including care for victims, removal from ministry during an investigation, reporting to civil authorities and having a primarily lay-staffed review board in all directions," he said.
The new strictures come at a time when the 63 million member Roman Catholic Church is experiencing a critical shortage in the ranks of its 46,709 priests.
Of 19,179 Catholic parishes in the United States, 2,334 do not have a resident priest. The average age of a diocesan priest is 57. The average age of a priest belonging to a religious order is 63.
The proviso allowing a priest to remain in the ministry applies only to abuse committed before yesterday, the date of the release of the draft. From now on, even a single act of abuse of a minor will result in the priest being defrocked.
"Our seminaries and screening processes will be looked at once again," Archbishop Flynn said. "Anyone who does abuse from this day forward will be out of the priesthood. There is no place in the priesthood for those who abuse the young or those who victimize youth."
Revelations of widespread priestly sexual misconduct and cover-ups by the hierarchy began in January during the trial of John Geoghan, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston and subsequently in 16 other dioceses.
Some bishops have admitted they knowingly harbored sexual predators for years, and a few others have quit under accusations of sexual misconduct with young men.
Not only did the bishops run an open apology in USA Today in February, but American cardinals were summoned to the Vatican in April and ordered to come up with a solution.
The bishops' committee, calling the situation "a crisis without precedent" in the church, pledged to "repair the breach with those who have suffered sexual abuse."
The panel's other proposals for sexual misconduct cases include establishing a coordinator in each diocese for dealing with all accusations of sexual abuse.
An "Office for Child and Youth Protection" would also be established at the bishop conference's headquarters in Washington.
The coordinator brings charges to a review board, the majority of which will be lay persons not employed by the diocese. The board will review the charges, then recommend to the bishop whether the priest is fit for future ministry.
Dioceses are required to report all sexual abuse of children under 18 to police and to cooperate with police even if the incident happened many years ago and the victim is no longer a minor.
However, the draft statement steers clear of a "one strike and you're out" policy advocated by some.
The fifth article of the draft allows a priest who has been treated for past offenses, but is not a pedophile nor has committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a young person, to return to ministry if the review board allows it.
"We need to believe in the possibility of conversion and that people can turn a corner," Archbishop Flynn said. "Psychologically, medically, we would be fools if we were to say someone could not grow. But with a truly defined pedophile, it is next to impossible to expect any type of growth."
The victim will also have a say in the matter, the draft says, as will the offending priest. Any subsequent posting of the priest will require full disclosure of his past to that parish.
Citing past experience, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said the one-strike policy should apply to past and future cases.
"At our meeting in Dallas, I shall advocate a policy that says one act of child abuse is one act too many," Cardinal Keeler said in a statement.
Dean Hoge, a Catholic University scholar who specializes in priestly research, agreed that a priest with one offense should have some leeway.
"The bishop or local committee should be allowed to judge in this case," he said. "There are always circumstances to be considered. You should allow a certain amount of discretion, although I think public opinion is against that."
Other organizations where adults and children are in close proximity take a stricter line.
"One offense, and they're out," said June Million of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. A teacher or principal who is found guilty of an act of sexual misconduct, she said, immediately loses not only a job but teaching certification as well.
Any kind of sexually abusive behavior is grounds for dismissal in Fairfax County public schools, spokesman Paul Regnier says.
"We're pretty strong on regulations like that," he said. "If it's anything like what's happened in the Catholic Church, people get a hearing, but it's pretty clear."
There are no sanctions in the document for bishops who do not adhere to the mandatory guidelines.
"Public disclosure is sanction enough," Archbishop Flynn said. "I cannot imagine a bishop subjecting himself to that. I cannot imagine a bishop for any reason saying 'I am not going to follow this.'"


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