Panel Will Weigh Whether Accused Priets Can Return to Duty

By Sam Skolnik
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 24, 2003

In February, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle dropped a bombshell: Almost 50 of its priests had been accused of sexually abusing area children and teenagers during the past 50 years.

A month later, diocesan officials acknowledged they had paid $2.8 million in legal settlement costs in recent years to scores of abuse victims.

But today begins what could be the most difficult task facing Archbishop Alex Brunett and the select group of prominent area lawyers, church officials and therapists he has impaneled to advise him:

They must weigh whether any of the 13 priests accused of abuse who have not yet retired are fit to return to duty.

Before the panel can tackle whether the allegations are true, members meeting for the first time today will have to determine how to conduct their work -- and how independent they will remain from the archdiocese.

Ultimately, any recommendations the review board makes will have to be approved by Brunett. Dennis O'Leary, an assistant to Auxiliary Bishop George Thomas -- the second-ranking person in the archdiocese and currently a review board member -- says Brunett "has been committed to the process. Unless there is a really unusual situation, he would accept their recommendation."

O'Leary adds that Brunett never rejected a recommendation from earlier review panels, which have existed since 1985 as "Special Cases Committees."

Current review board members make it clear they expect to be able to do their jobs unimpeded by archdiocese influence -- and that their recommendations will be heeded.

"We will make our best efforts to find the truth and hold people accountable," says the newly appointed head of the review board, retired King County Superior Court Judge Terry Carroll. "We're not going to do this under any other circumstances."

Panel member Rebecca Roe, a Seattle lawyer, was even more blunt.

"I am not going to be part of some process where we find some accusation to be credible, and then we're told it's just an advisory role," says Roe, who for several years headed up the Special Assault Unit with the King County Prosecutor's Office.

Roe predicted that the investigations would be complete and the recommendations made to Brunett by September.

In addition to Carroll, Roe and Thomas, the review board members are British Columbia-based canon law expert Linda Robataille; former U.S. attorney for Western Washington Mike McKay; the Rev. John Madigan of St. Stephen the Martyr Church in Renton; sex offender treatment provider Tim Smith; and psychologist Robert Wheeler.

Board members acknowledge that evaluating the accusations could be a tricky task, in part because the review board is not a civil court of law, with clear guidelines on how investigations are conducted and what standards of guilt are used.

It's not clear, for example, whether the board will use a "preponderance of the evidence" standard for the accused priests, as in civil cases; guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," the criminal standard; or something in between.

Although the panel will use an experienced legal investigator to dig up facts and write reports, it's unclear whether the board will interview the accusers or the accused priests when making their determinations.

Investigator Rick Buckland will have his hands full. The cases are all old. There have been no public reports of priests abusing children within the Archdiocese of Seattle, which includes 175 parishes and missions throughout Western Washington, since 1987.

And there may be other complicating factors. According to O'Leary, the archdiocese assistant, Bishop Thomas, may remove himself from the review board because of concerns about a perceived conflict of interest.

"Everybody is concerned about making it clear to the public that this is a lay committee," he said.

O'Leary also acknowledged that Buckland -- as well as two of the review board members -- will be paid an hourly rate by the archdiocese. He declined to name the two board members and insisted that the money would not taint their ability to do their jobs.

David Clohessy, national chairman of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, takes exception to that notion.

He says that many members of similar review boards around the country have been unfairly swayed to side with church officials.

"I desperately hope that these review board members will steadfastly maintain their independence, that they have access to important church documents, and that they meet with victims," said Clohessy.

The board will function under a governing church document -- the "Essential Norms" for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by priests, revised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November.

Under the norms, the first function of the board is to advise Brunett regarding the credibility of allegations of sexual abuse of minors, and whether priests are suitable for ministry.

But under that document, review boards must conduct their investigations "in accord with canon law," which means that Archbishop Brunett has the power of judge and jury, and can trump any recommendations the board could make.

The revised policy has come under sharp criticism by Clohessy and others for making several changes to the existing policy set last April, all in favor of protecting accused priests and the church.

Brunett also will be able to decide what punishment abusive priests should expect. The penalties include outright defrocking, being removed from ministerial duties and being barred from celebrating Mass. There is also the possibility that if the allegations against a priest are found credible -- but if the priest still denies guilt -- he could avail himself of a formal "canonical trial," perhaps conducted in the Vatican.

The Seattle Archdiocese currently is facing more than 30 lawsuits that allege sexual abuse by its priests committed before 1981.


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