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Analysis: Bishops' policy on abuse satisfies Wuerl

Sunday, June 16, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

DALLAS -- Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh arrived in Dallas fearing that his fellow Catholic bishops would adopt a policy on sexual abuse far more lenient than the one he has in Pittsburgh. He left satisfied that they had crafted one slightly more strict.

Partly because of Wuerl's insistence on a definition of sexual abuse that goes beyond genital molestation or rape, there will be no possibility that a priest who has behaved in a sexually inappropriate way with a minor will be assigned to even an administrative post that involves no contact with laity.

Previously he had allowed the possibility that a priest who had perhaps suggestively stroked the leg or back of a fully clothed teen-ager might, after treatment and on the recommendation of a lay review board, be put to work signing papers in the diocesan canon law offices. But no offending priest now holds such an assignment in his diocese.

"In practice, there is no distinction between the charter we just approved and what we do in Pittsburgh," Wuerl said.

"But in terms of the breadth of possibilities, the charter, and therefore now the policies of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, preclude a priest who has abused a minor from exercising priestly ministry."

Although he has revealed no names, numbers or details of cases, in March Wuerl removed "several" priests from ministry because of old allegations that sounded credible, but which were not supported by evidence. From then on, he said, if the diocese was to err in handling such a case, it would err on the side of protecting parishioners.

Unless some of the priests can somehow prove their innocence, it seemed certain that Wuerl was heading home to tell these men that they could never call themselves "Father" again.

Some victim groups initially complained that the charter does not promise that all offending priests will be laicized -- effectively removed from the priesthood.

But by the next morning David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, had had a chance to read the final text and found it tougher than he had first thought.

"It's much tighter. It's much stronger," he said.

In fact the bishops cannot promise to laicize an offending priest. They may request it, but Rome does not have to grant it -- especially for the sort of "gray area" cases that Wuerl was concerned about.

The most disputed passage says that diocesan "policy will provide that for even a single act of sexual abuse ... of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry."

It says that the priest may request laicization or the bishop may request it without his consent. However, "If the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state has not been applied (e.g. for reasons of advanced age or infirmity), the offender is to lead a life of prayer and penance. He will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb or to present himself publicly as a priest."

Most of the accusations now coming to light are more than 20 years old, and bishops do not want to throw an 85-year-old priest with Alzheimer's and without any savings out of the diocesan retirement home and onto the street. They also know that provision must be made for situations where Rome refuses their request for laicization.

Clohessy said yesterday that he found some advantages in banning a priest from ministry without laicization.

"In a way it's better than having these people go out and get another job and get arrested," he said.

In fact the bishops displayed a level of determination and even moral courage in their willingness to risk Rome's wrath over this policy. On this occasion as on no other, they wrote what they believed was right without worrying about how Rome would react.

"Although there have been rumblings from key Vatican officials that their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is too draconian, there was no postponement for negotiations with Rome, no cautions from canon lawyers that Rome might strike down their new rules.

The potential for such action was made clear during the debate when the bishops heard from one of their number who had served from 1986 to 1994 as a judge in the Vatican court system.

Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., insisted that immediately telling civil authorities about allegations of sexual abuse against a minor was a violation of the priest's rights under canon law.

"When we do this we rat out our priests. And I'm not in favor of it," Doran told his brother bishops.

His argument was resoundingly defeated. Yet it was emblematic of the attitude that produced appalling scandals in some dioceses a decade after the bishops adopted a voluntary policy to remove all offending priests from parish ministry. And it was a warning of the reception that may await this document in Rome.

One of the underlying issues is that the national bishops conference has no power to give orders to individual bishops. These norms will only have the force of law if Rome makes them into canon law for the United States. Nothing in the norms contradicts canon law, Wuerl said, so that should be possible.

"We need Rome's authority to bind every bishop in the United States to follow these norms. That is what we did not do in 1992-1993. Now we are saying we are going to ask Rome to make this law for all of us," he said.

"However the canonical procedures [to laicize a priest] are so cumbersome and drawn out that we as a conference are going to have to ask for and receive some streamlining that allows us to move more quickly, while still guaranteeing the rights of everyone involved."

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