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Priests' Meeting Marks First Public Dissent Over Sex Abuse Policy

Resistance a Troubling Sign for Victims Groups
by Hanna Rosin and Alan Cooperman
in The Washington Post

Judging purely from the outcome, today's concluding meeting of Roman Catholic religious orders would seem to have closed the debate on the church's sex abuse policy: The one remaining major body of priests adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward sex offenders with only a few minor procedural changes.

And yet the meeting will likely be remembered for a different milestone. The convention of nearly 170 priests marked the first time since the June meeting of the bishops in Dallas that dissent was voiced publicly against zero tolerance -- that a group of Catholic leaders wondered aloud whether the bishops, under public pressure, had promised too much.

The dissent came from the Rev. Canice Connors, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, a group that is autonomous from the bishops and represents one-third of the nation's priests. In his speech to the group, Connors said that by using the "war slogan" of zero tolerance, the bishops abandoned what they and Jesus stood for: "the miracle of grace."

"The bishops evaporated the realities of repentance, conversion and reconciliation," he said.

Connors is the first to speak from such a public platform, but signs of dissent have been building through the summer, from dismissed priests who are challenging the policy and from canon lawyers who argue that key segments of it violate universal church law and can't be implemented until the Vatican changes the law -- a process that normally takes decades.

The resistance leaves open the possibility that priests, resentful of the policy, might find ways around it, abuse victims worry. They are concerned that important segments of the policy, formally called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, might remain in legal limbo for years.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said these differences are not a question of resistance but of "letting the charter settle" into Catholic life. The bishops have submitted portions of the policy that might conflict with canon law as a separate document to the Vatican and hope the differences will be resolved on an expedited timetable.

The policy requires the permanent removal from public ministry of any priest who has ever abused a minor, no matter how long ago. He could not wear clerical garb or present himself as a priest. It also calls for the church to report all allegations of abuse involving minors to civil authorities, and it forbids dioceses to make secret payments to settle sex abuse lawsuits.

In addition to accepting the charter, religious orders meeting here this week adopted their own statement that began with an apology. "We are deeply sorry -- and publicly apologize for whenever and however we failed victims or families," they wrote.

The statement also noted the special position of religious orders as fraternities that cannot easily reject one of their own. An abuser "is still our brother in Christ," they wrote. "He remains a member of our family."

But other members at the convention were concerned that portion of the statement appeared too lenient.

"It can also be seen as an un-nuanced commitment to maintain rapists and sodomists in our midst," said the Rev. David Ullrich, of the Oblates here in Washington. "When do we make it clear that we have exercised some judgment in removing them from our midst?"

The Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, left open the possibility that orders might establish communal houses for such priests and that they might be able to perform priestly functions there. He did not specify how they might be supervised.

This practice is already in place, however, and has caused some controversy. After the scandal broke, Abbott John Klassen of St. John's Abbey in Minnesota acknowledged that the abbey had served as a kind of safe house for 14 abusive priests. At first he was praised for breaking the secrecy, but victims groups objected when they found out Klassen had let some of the restricted monks travel and had let two work in public ministries.

More broadly, Monsignor Thomas J. Green, an expert on canon law at Catholic University, has dissected the bishops' charter, pointing out what he found to be vague or contrary to canon law. In a written commentary, he concludes the document was hastily drafted, leaves no room for the rights of the accused and ignores hundreds of years of church legal tradition defining the church's responsibility to its priests.

Green argues that the removal of priests for acts they committed many years ago violates the statute of limitations in canon law, which is 10 years from the victim's 18th birthday.

Until the Vatican approves the Dallas policy, the church's "universal law prevails over any elements of the [Dallas] norms that may be contrary to it," wrote Green, who is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Despite such analyses, the president of the bishops' conference, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., has predicted that the Vatican will approve the charter and its accompanying legal norms. Meanwhile, Gregory has maintained, America's bishops can put it into effect on their own.

But the bishops do not appear to be in complete agreement about the charter. Some of them have raised questions about the definition of sexual abuse adopted in Dallas, which may apply to acts that do not involve physical force or genital contact. Green echoed that concern, saying the charter does not distinguish between degrees of abuse.

Other bishops have suggested that they might try to find nonministerial jobs within the church for some abusers -- a clear step away from Gregory's ringing statement in Dallas that "from this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States."

One group of eight bishops is privately circulating a letter calling for a "plenary council" of U.S. church leaders to combat the sexual abuse scandal by reaffirming traditional teachings, particularly celibacy in the priesthood. The church has not held a plenary council, which would bring together priests, bishops and lay people, since 1884.

At the same time, a few priests are appealing to Rome to reverse their removal from the ministry, arguing that the policy adopted by the bishops violates their rights under canon law. In such cases, church lawyers have forwarded the files to a Vatican committee in the hope that the appeals process will resolve some of the open questions.

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

Calicott had admitted an incident with two teenage boys in 1976, but psychologists at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring had since cleared him for ministry. "I think the bishops really felt the public pressure in Dallas," he said last month. "They backed themselves into a corner."