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Bishops Face Obstacles to Tough Policy

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 4, 2002

Less than a month after declaring a policy of zero tolerance toward child sexual abuse, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are encountering serious difficulties in putting it into effect.

The policy adopted June 14 in Dallas requires the permanent removal from ministry of any priest who has sexually abused a minor. But some priests are refusing to go quietly, and bishops uncomfortable with the policy are raising practical obstacles, such as uncertainty about the definition of sexual abuse. The most serious challenge is in Chicago, where five priests are appealing to the Vatican to overturn their removal by Cardinal Francis George. They contend that the Dallas policy violates their rights under canon law, the church's internal legal code.

Catholic officials in Chicago acknowledge that the five priests are following proper procedures and, moreover, stand a good chance of success.

"You know there are many reservations among canon lawyers about those Dallas decisions," said the Rev. William Woestman, who serves as promoter of justice -- the church's equivalent of prosecutor -- for the Archdiocese of Chicago and is responsible for carrying out the zero-tolerance policy there.

He said the rules set by the American bishops blatantly disregard the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases previously established by the church, which is 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday. In addition, the rules retroactively increase penalties for sexual offenses and may subject some priests to double jeopardy, he said.

"Some of these people were punished 25 years ago, and now we are coming back to punish them again," Woestman said. "I suspect the Holy See will not uphold parts of that [policy] because it's contrary to the general law of the church."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, denied that there is any lack of will among Catholic leaders to implement the decisions made in Dallas.

"There is no question of resistance to the policy. It is a matter of difficulties in application. When they sit down to apply it, it is not as simple as it might first have appeared. Due process is an issue, and the definition of sexual abuse is an issue," she said.

Victims groups have a different impression, however.

"What we're seeing is implementation of the policy on a diocese-by-diocese basis, which means that in effect the policy today is not much different than it was before," said Mark Serrano, a leader of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, a support group of about 4,000 victims. "We see a real disparity across the country, where some bishops are acting on past sex offenders and others are not. We see some bishops acting swiftly, and some bishops not."

The Vatican, which has the power to impose more uniformity, has not yet passed judgment on the decisions made in Dallas. The president of the bishops conference, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., traveled to Rome last week to deliver the two main documents, a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and a set of "canonical norms" that translate the charter into church law. Gregory has said he is confident that Pope John Paul II will approve the norms, making them mandatory for all U.S. bishops. But Vatican officials have suggested that the approval process could take months and that the outcome is far from certain.

In the meantime, some American bishops clearly are moving with dispatch to carry out the zero-tolerance policy. At least 218 priests had been removed from ministry earlier this year because of sexual abuse allegations. Since the Dallas meeting, about 25 more have lost their jobs, including eight in Chicago, five in Albany, five in Amarillo, Tex., three in Minneapolis-St. Paul and three in Phoenix. Most of the priests who were removed in the past three weeks had been working under restrictions after receiving psychological treatment for sexual misconduct, often dating back more than a decade. Typically, they held administrative posts, served as hospital chaplains or were in other jobs that involved no contact with minors.

With few exceptions, they have admitted committing abuse, but some of them, nevertheless, consider their dismissals to be unjust. Of the eight priests removed in Chicago, for example, "two have resigned and one is retired, but the other five are going to make use of their right of appeal," Auxiliary Bishop Raymond E. Goedert said.

Goedert added that the archdiocese is now compiling information on those five cases, which will be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department that the pope assigned last year to oversee the handling of all sexual abuse allegations involving Catholic clergymen. "Right now, we don't know what that [appeal process] means, because we have to find out from Rome what they want us to do," Goedert said. "This is all new territory for us."

One of the priests who is appealing to Rome, the Rev. John Calicott, said the bishops "just forgot that due process is part of canon law."

Calicott was pastor of Holy Angels Church, a vibrant black congregation, until two weeks ago. Although he has admitted a sexual incident with two teenage boys in another parish in 1976, psychologists at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, a church-affiliated facility for troubled priests, cleared him to return to ministry in 1995.

"I think the bishops really felt the public pressure in Dallas," he said. "They backed themselves into a corner and, with their haste to do something, they came out with a policy that is very, very flawed." While his appeal is pending, Calicott said, he will remain on administrative leave, barred from celebrating Masses, wearing clerical garb or engaging in any ministry. He has moved out of the Holy Angels rectory and into a seminary, along with the other Chicago-area priests who have been removed from their posts.

Goedert, the auxiliary bishop, noted that the Dallas policy forced the Archdiocese of Chicago to abandon its practice of allowing some clerical sex offenders to return to ministry with the approval of a lay review board.

"We were disappointed because we thought our Chicago policies were good. We thought they safeguarded children," he said. "But there was no leeway given in Dallas."

Elsewhere around the country, however, some bishops appear to see room for interpretation. In Cincinnati, for instance, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk has announced that he will continue to keep secret the names and assignments of four priests who have a history of sexual misconduct with minors. Although the four unidentified priests have been in restricted ministry, Pilarczyk has said he is not certain whether their offenses constitute sexual abuse.

"There is this whole range of activities, from putting your arm around a child to, God forbid, sodomizing a child. Not all of those would be illegal, and they wouldn't all necessarily be considered child abuse," said the archbishop's spokesman, Dan Andriacco.

Andriacco said Pilarczyk will ask a lay review board to weigh the four cases, consider the definition of sexual abuse and recommend whether the priests should remain in ministry. In the meantime, their names will not be made public, Andriacco said, because "naming them is tantamount to removing them from ministry. Realistically, they could not minister effectively."

Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating (R), chairman of an independent board of lay Catholics charged with ensuring that the Dallas decisions are vigorously enforced, said the questions raised by Pilarczyk and other bishops appear to be "normal birthing pains" that will fade with time. But he cited several steps that, he said, "will put the bull's-eye on any errant prelates." First, his panel will soon reach its full strength of 11 members and look for a "tough prosecutor, ex-cop type" to serve as the full-time director of a new Office for Child and Youth Protection under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Then, he said, the panel will commission intensive research on the sex abuse problem within the church, and it will work with local review boards in each diocese to monitor progress.

"If we see that a bishop has obfuscated and denied and covered up, we will say it. And our board will recommend that bishops who do that be replaced," he said. As for priests who appeal their removal for alleged child abuse, Keating said, "they should think first about 'Did they do it?' If they didn't do it, then they should fight to the center of the Earth. But if they are arguing about technicalities while they stand guilty before the public and parishioners, it is beyond shame for them to do that."