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Catholic Orders Might Keep Abusive Priests

By Laurie Goodstein
of the New York Times

When the leaders of the nation's 125 Roman Catholic religious orders meet next month in Philadelphia, they will confront the issue of what to do with sexually abusive priests who belong to religious orders, like the Jesuits, Franciscans and Benedictines.

One-third of the nation's Catholic priests belong to religious orders, and their fates will be determined not by bishops, but by the major superiors and provincials who lead their orders.

Leaders of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which will meet next month, say the orders are unlikely to take the same approach as the nation's bishops.

The bishops agreed last month in most cases to seek to remove from the priesthood priests who had sexually abused a child or an adolescent.

But the leaders of the conference of superiors say they do not expect to take that step. The reason, they say, is that the relationship between a bishop and the priests of his diocese is very different from the relationship between a major superior and the priests, monks and brothers in a religious order.

When a man joins a Catholic order, he takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience lifelong vows that commit the man to the community and the community to the man, said the Rev. Ted Keating, a Marist who is executive director of the conference. While many diocesan priests live in rectories, are paid a salary and have some independence, a priest in a religious order often lives in a community house or a monastery and receives only a stipend for living expenses.

"He's been under a vow of poverty in this order for all of his life, and likely has no assets whatsoever," Father Keating said. "Whether he's sick, or in prison, or charged with something, he's still a member of the family, and we take care of him and watch out for him, even though we would not tolerate what he did in any way.

"Many of these men who are real sexual abusers are sick men, some who have been sexually abused themselves when they were young, or who are disturbed with compulsions," he said.

"These would be the very grounds for not dismissing a religious priest. The Congregation in Rome would say, he's a sick man; you need to take care of him," Father Keating said. He was referring to the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life, the Vatican office that oversees Catholic orders.

Lawyers who represent victims of sexual abuse, however, say that the orders' tradition of protecting their priests has allowed many of them to hide offenders.

"They have been successful at keeping a secret better or more than anyone else in the Catholic Church," said Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul who has handled hundreds of cases against the church. "The monks, the cloistered orders, they are the darkest of the dark. Because they are so insular and secluded, they're even more closed and secretive than the bishops and their clerical culture."

Mr. Anderson has filed lawsuits accusing religious orders of moving abusive priests from one state to another, and even from one country to another, to avoid prosecution.

"They have complete control over their priests and no geographical limitations, like a bishop does in his diocese," he said.

About 15,000 of the nation's 45,000 priests belong to religious orders, said Mary L. Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University.

About one-third of priests in religious orders are assigned to parishes; another third work in schools, universities, hospitals or other ministries; and the others work in administration of the orders or are retired, Father Keating said. Some parishes, schools and ministries are run by dioceses, while others are run by orders. No order priest can work in ministry in a diocese without the permission of the bishop, he said.

In the past, some orders permitted priests who had been accused of sexual abuse and some who had received treatment as molesters to work in dioceses without informing bishops of the accusations. So, in 1995, the major superiors agreed formally to inform the bishop before sending anyone accused of sexual abuse to work in a diocesan parish or ministry.

Under the policy the bishops approved last month in Dallas, order priests who have sexually abused young people will be removed from ministry, as will diocesan priests. Dozens of order priests have already been removed by bishops in the last six months. The difference lies in the treatment that priests in orders face after they are removed from ministry.

Familial commitments are not the only reason that the orders are likely to decide to keep their priests, said the Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan friar who is president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and a former director of the St. Luke Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Maryland that treated sexually abusive priests.

"From my background in treatment, I always preferred the idea that we would stay in a relationship of accountability with somebody who is an abuser," Father Connors said. Orders have experimented in the last decade with how to house, monitor and occupy offenders, he said. Many orders allow such priests to work in the order's archives, in administration, in nursing homes or in maintaining buildings or grounds.

"They can gain the support of living in the community," he said.

But Father Connors said the orders were not happy with the suggestion of some bishops in Dallas that abusive priests be sent to monasteries. That idea was quickly discouraged by many monks and abbots, and the bishops retreated, Father Connors said.

"I think they realize it was a statement made in adversity," he said. "It can't be the answer."

The ascetic monastery life requires a person who feels called to it, said the Rev. Francis Kline, abbot of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C.

"Truth be told, it's a rare person that can adjust from a very active life of ministry to a contemplative life," Father Kline said.

Bishops sent a few abusive priests to Mepkin Abbey for temporary stays in the past, he said, but "usually the ones who are sent, they just can't stay. We live a very strict life. There is nothing there for them."

The major superiors may consider creating institutions to house, treat and monitor sexually abusive priests.

"Maybe even a new religious order could arise out of all of this," Father Connors said.

"There are parallels in history. Whole communities were founded to take care of lepers. These men are not lepers, but society is regarding them that way."