Local Diocese Now Requires Reporting All Abuse Claims

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer Religion [Cleveland OH]
March 1, 2003

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland is requiring that all suspected acts of sexual abuse of minors by a church employee be reported to civil authorities and is establishing a review board to monitor the church's handling of abuse allegations.

Bishop Anthony Pilla announced the new diocesan policy yesterday. The policy also mandates that all Catholic schools and religious-education programs teach sex ual abuse prevention in classes from pre- kindergarten through grade 12.

Fifteen diocesan priests now on leave because of allegations of abuse may apply for reinstatement un der the new policy. However, the bishop reaffirmed his sup port of national church policy that any priest who has committed even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor be permanently re moved from the min istry.

The new policy creates a response team of mental health professionals and a pastoral minister to address the immediate and long-term needs of alleged victims. For alleged offenders, the policy requires that investigations be kept confidential and that the cleric's right to due process be respected.

In a letter to be distributed at Masses this weekend and next in the region's 235 parishes, Pilla tells the diocese's more than 800,000 Catholics that the new policy shows the church's commitment to protect children and heal abuse victims.

"It is my prayer that we all come together in restoring trust at every level within our Catholic community and that our church will emerge purified and more holy," Pilla said.

The new policy was recommended to Pilla by a 22-member special commission led by former Cleveland Safety Director William Denihan.

Denihan said yesterday that area churchgoers should be reassured that "Catholics just like them" will make up the great majority of the 11-member review board.

"It's comforting to know there's an involvement outside the walls of the diocese," he said.

The new policy mandates that all church workers report suspected sexual abuse of a minor "immediately to civil authorities," even before any preliminary screening or investigation by church authorities. Church employees who do not immediately report abuse will be disciplined and may face misdemeanor charges.

All allegations of abuse also must be reported to the bishop, who will notify the diocesan review board and a support person for the alleged victim. The new policy also requires that the diocese take immediate action to protect and supervise children in the care of a suspected offender.

As soon as possible after a report of abuse, the diocese will begin an administrative investigation. The investigator's initial findings will be reported to the bishop and the predominantly lay review board.

If the bishop concludes that the initial investigation shows the allegation "is not clearly false or not clearly incredible," the alleged offender will be removed from ministry pending a full investigation. The policy also requires the church to inform parishioners, parents and others involved in the parish that the priest is being placed on administrative leave because of allegations of abuse.

In this second-stage review, the lay board will investigate and report to the bishop whether the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest, seminarian or deacon has been established. In cases where the evidence is unclear, the review board may make a recommendation to the bishop about the alleged offender's fitness to return to ministry.

The policy says that if the alleged offender is found to be innocent, every step possible will be taken to restore his reputation.

If the allegations involve lay church employees, the review board will monitor actions taken by diocesan administrators.

Pilla will make the final decisions on church discipline and will appoint the members of the review board. But the review board also is charged with monitoring diocesan responses to make sure the sex abuse policy is being followed.

The diocese said yesterday that it is starting to take applications for the lay review board, which will consist of a parish priest, a canon lawyer and nine other Catholics who are not church employees. Other members will include a parent and an abuse survivor. A committee led by Denihan is expected to recommend review board members to Pilla by May 1.

In his letter, Pilla told area Catholics that the review board will be in place as soon as is reasonably possible.

Pilla also met yesterday with about 100 church employees to discuss the diocesan budget planning process.

The poor economy has led to flat revenues and may require some financial sacrifices such an increased insurance co-pays, according to some familiar with the budget discussions.

Plain Dealer Reporter James McCarty contributed to this story.

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