- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004


The national reports on molesters among Roman Catholic clergy add a new layer of complexity for U.S. bishops as they look ahead to their next major decision in fighting sex abuse — whether to renew what’s known as their “zero tolerance” policy for abusers.

The bishops commissioned a study released Friday that found 4,392 priests were accused of abuse from 1950 to 2002, and plan to debate at their June meeting either keeping or revising the toughened abuse policy they adopted at the height of the crisis two years ago.

The chief matter is “zero tolerance,” the rule that priests guilty of even one abusive act with a minor must be permanently removed from active ministry and, in most instances, eventually dismissed from the clergy.

While pressure from the public and victims to keep the policy in place is intense, some in the church want changes. Priests and bishops have argued that kicking out abusers without rehabilitation is too harsh, and merely sets loose an untreated abuser on society.

The survey conducted for a church watchdog panel by John Jay College of Criminal Justice makes things even trickier, because it found a steep drop-off in abuse cases in the 1990s, when bishops began crackdowns but before zero tolerance went into place.

Meanwhile, a new Vatican report by non-Catholic experts on therapy for abusers says zero tolerance is too harsh. An official with the sponsoring Vatican agency said bishops shouldn’t abandon a sinner but apply punishment and “return him to a meaningful role in the church.”

The U.S. policy “sacrifices priests for the sake of the bishops,” complains the Rev. Joseph Fessio, publisher of Ignatius Press. “From a human point of view it is unjust. From a Christian point of view it is inconceivable.”

He said the purpose of the policy “is not to protect the reputation of bishops, who deservedly lost it, but to do the right thing now.”

Victims’ advocates agree the church should do the right thing — but they feel strongly that means keeping the policy in place.

They argue that the new national count of abusers is a clear underestimate, partly because many victims wait years or even decades to come forward.

John Jay researchers agreed. They said dioceses examining individual cases of offenders estimated there may be 3,000 additional victims who have not filed claims.

That means that, instead of a 1970s peak and a steep decline in abuse cases in the 1990s, the true picture is closer to one of molestation continuing unabated, victims claim.

Susan Archibald of The Linkup, a national abuse survivors’ group, says “the bishops as leaders should send a strong message that if you harm the young or vulnerable, there’s no place for you within our ranks.”

Bishops must also consider morale among their priests.

The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, representing 27,000 U.S. clergy, said abusers must be removed from active ministry. But “simply dismissing them from the clerical state and putting them on the street” is cruel.

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