Some Bishops Falling Short on Enforcing Sex-Abuse Policy
One Year after Guidelines Set, Dioceses Vary on Removing Priests

By Reese Dunklin
The Dallas Morning News [Dallas, Texas]
June 9, 2003

About a year ago, U.S. Catholic bishops battered by the clergy sex-abuse scandal pledged changes: no tolerance for offenders, new powers for lay investigative boards and an era of openness.

But not all bishops have been following that get-tough approach as diligently as promised, a check of several dioceses around the country found.

Some accused priests have remained on the job because their bishops say the misconduct didn't meet their new policy's definition of sexual abuse or didn't warrant removal from ministry. Others have been reinstated over objections of the bishops' lay review boards.

Several bishops have continued their secretive ways - failing to name accused priests, or account for the crisis' financial toll, or reveal who investigates abuse claims. Some have not enforced parts of their new national sex-abuse policy, passed last June in Dallas, until prodded publicly.

What you have here is, each bishop is the czar of his diocese," said Jay Dolan, a University of Notre Dame professor specializing in American Catholic history. "Some will end up doing what they well please. Some dioceses are serious, and some are not."

Many Catholic leaders are serious about confronting abuse and are "doing the right thing over and over," said Bishop George Niederauer, the head of the Diocese of Salt Lake City and a member of the influential bishops committee that drafted the new policy. Several other bishops declined to comment or did not return calls.

"I think we should be very slow to say, 'Oh, it's not working,' " Bishop Niederauer said. "It's working."

One member of an Ohio diocese's abuse review board isn't so optimistic.

Dr. Robert Cooley said the Toledo Diocese withheld files from the board during several recent internal investigations and failed to inform the public about the panel's recommendations to oust priests. He said he's questioned diocesan officials but has received few answers.

"Nationally, there are still attempts [to crack down], but locally you run into dioceses like ours that aren't interested in the process," said Dr. Cooley, a psychiatrist. "Here, I don't think they're working hard to make it happen." Diocesan officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Shortly after the new policy was adopted, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien vowed that his diocese would "lead the nation in compliance" and would be "proactively cooperative" in any investigations of clergy misconduct.

In subsequent months, diocesan officials fought the release of more than 3,000 church records as part of the Maricopa County attorney office's inquiry, said Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant in the prosecutor's office.

"That was the lip service that was paid here in Phoenix: We want to fully cooperate. We want to end this controversy," he said. "Then they proceeded to put up every roadblock they could to prevent us from getting the full story."

The diocese has denied that claim.

Last week, the investigation culminated with Bishop O'Brien acknowledging that he had let priests accused of molesting minors continue working with children and had transferred priests without telling their new parishes about the allegations. The bishop's signed statement was part of an agreement he reached with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.

Combating abuse crisis

The bishops' new policy was the centerpiece in the church's efforts last year to combat a sex abuse crisis that had led to hundreds of lawsuits and prompted several grand jury investigations around the country.

In the weeks leading up to the Dallas conference, four bishops accused of sexual misconduct resigned; three of them made admissions, the fourth denied the allegations but said he was stepping down for the good of the church.

Initially, the proposed abuse guidelines, as drafted in April 2002 after Pope John Paul II summoned U.S. cardinals to Rome, mandated the removal of "notorious" priests guilty of "serial, predatory" abuse with a minor.

But with the scandal intensifying, the bishops approved a more stringent plan at their meeting in Dallas. It called for removing any clergyman who committed a "single act" of misbehavior with a minor - even if it didn't include a "complete act of intercourse" or "force, physical contact, or a discernible harmful outcome." The broad definition of abuse remained after the Vatican later ordered revisions, including a 10-year statute of limitation that could be waived at a bishop's request.

Initially, several bishops moved swiftly on the new directives. They returned to their dioceses and began pulling priests. Some had been allowed to return to ministry after being sent - in some cases multiple times - to church-run treatment centers; a few had served criminal sentences for abuse. The Chicago Archdiocese removed eight priests, for instance, and the already short-staffed Amarillo Diocese removed five.

Many bishops established local review boards or reworked existing panels to include lay voices - and sometimes abuse victims, as was the case in Metuchen, N.J.

Following through on the bishops' pledge for openness, Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler had posted online and published in the archdiocese's newspaper a list of 60 priests and brothers who previously had been accused of sexual abuse.

"The cardinal felt that in the spirit of the charter, we had to be open and transparent," said archdiocese spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. "He also realized that [abuse] is a cancer. It's painful, but you have to cut it out."

Priests still serving

Yet in other parts of the country, some church leaders have continued to hang on to their priests.

A local review board in Richmond, Va., for instance, ruled that one priest "exceeded boundaries" and engaged in "inappropriate" behavior with a high school student in the mid-1970s. But Bishop Walter Sullivan called the priest's removal unwarranted. One reason: "This is the only allegation that has come about him." The bishop's spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

Months earlier, Bishop Sullivan's decision to reinstate a different priest led several members of the diocese's review board to quit in protest, saying they had not been consulted.

In the Belleville, Ill., Diocese, Bishop Wilton Gregory this spring reinstated a priest who had been the subject of three church reviews since the late 1980s.

A statement from the bishop did not elaborate on his decision or address the allegations. His vicar general, the Rev. James Margason, said in an interview that the claims were credible but didn't constitute abuse.

Bishop Gregory, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was the most visible champion of the new tougher policy. Yet he had let this priest remain on the job after it was adopted. After inquiries by The Dallas Morning News last fall, Bishop Gregory suspended the priest while a review panel re-examined the priest's conduct and said he should have taken those steps immediately after the policy's adoption. The priest had been accused in the late 1980s of inappropriately touching a teenage boy and college-age men at a church-run camp.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has delayed taking action against three priests who have admitted to misconduct as well as a fourth facing allegations that it has substantiated.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk has waited because a Hamilton County grand jury is investigating, spokesman Dan Andriacco said. Disciplining the priests might "prejudice what they're doing," he said. At some point, the men "will have to be removed, but we need to do it in a prudent way," he said.

Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Allen scoffed at the archdiocese's reasoning.

"Anything they'd do would in no way, shape or form taint the grand jury investigation. That's patently false," said Mr. Allen, a Catholic whose office already has criminal cases against two other priests. "If they have any [abusive priests] on duty, they ought to remove them and not put it off on our investigation."

Mr. Andriacco wouldn't say where three of the priests work; the fourth has been assigned overseas in a diplomatic services job with the Vatican. "We have not dragged our feet on current cases," he added, noting that the archdiocese last year put three other accused priests on leave.

'A lot of variables'

Some diocesan leaders have said that they've struggled with applying their new sex abuse charter to cases that aren't clear-cut. Deciding those can leave church officials "caught between a rock and a hard place," said the Rev. Thomas Green, a canon law professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

"There are a lot of variables," he said. "There's a lack of clear criteria for difficult decisions. We still don't have a settled jurisprudence."

But sex-abuse victims groups said some bishops have been erring on the side of priests.

"The bishops rationalize it as [the charter has] ambiguities and gray areas, so how will they implement this?" said Lee Bashforth, a molestation victim from California and member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "They just evaluate the media damage, and if there is not any, they go back to doing business as usual."

A review board member in the Diocese of Orange, Calif., said she came to a similar conclusion last year and resigned. The woman, an abuse victim, said the panel was "a PR ploy." It didn't examine a single case in the six months she served, and diocesan officials told members they wouldn't have access to priests' personnel files or psychological reports, she said.

"They were very scared that any records would become public or that any review board member or the press would get the records," she said. "The major concern was that they protect the good name of the priests."

The diocese's chancellor, Shirl Giacomi, said the review board didn't get any cases because there were none.

Ms. Giacomi said the diocese combed through its files early in 2002, pulled a few accused priests who were still in ministry and alerted criminal authorities. Had the panel received a complaint, members would have been given "everything they need to make a recommendation."

"We're not fighting to keep this quiet," Ms. Giacomi said. "We're not fooling around. As far as removing priests, we move on the side of safety."

Elsewhere, victims groups said, some bishops have kept operating in secrecy.

Several dioceses, such as Cleveland, have refused to disclose the names of priests who have been credibly accused of misconduct. Dallas officials won't discuss the whereabouts of priests they removed from assignments because of abuse. And in recent weeks, some bishops have delayed in responding to a survey they commissioned last year to gauge the scope of the crisis. They have said they are concerned the data could be used in litigation against their dioceses.

Other leaders, such as Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahony, have resisted turning over records to criminal investigators. In Cincinnati, Mr. Allen, the prosecutor, has argued in court that the archdiocese withheld documents that could be key to his investigation. The church has denied that charge.

Short of a Vatican reprimand, the only way to force dioceses to follow the charter is through the influence of a national review board the bishops' conference appointed to monitor compliance, said Dr. Dolan of Notre Dame. The question is, he said, "will this commission just be window dressing or is it serious?"

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who leads the board, said he hoped upcoming audits would put public pressure on dioceses that fall short. The board, however, has no authority to punish violators.

"Our moral trump card is the full public disclosure of the facts," he said.

Mr. Keating, who's been outspoken about bishops' role in scandal, said the church leaders should be implementing the policy and showing results by now.

"This is a serious matter," he said. "Bishops simply can't decide they'll review these cases in a casual, ad-hoc way. That's not acceptable.

"The bishops themselves adopted the zero-tolerance standard, not the board."


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