success stories

Bishops' Policy on Abuse Questioned

Religious Order Leaders Voice Doubts but Will Obey

By Hanna Rosin
in the Washington Post

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 9 -- Leaders of Roman Catholic religious orders said today that they would abide by the U.S. bishops' zero-tolerance policy toward sexually abusive priests but also openly questioned the new dictate, saying it "scapegoats" the abusers.

Members of religious orders, such as the Jesuits and Franciscans, make up about a third of the nation's priests and operate autonomously from dioceses. Their leaders, meeting here to discuss the pedophilia crisis in the church, said they would submit to the bishops' new get-tough charter, with minor changes.

"The bishops have spoken and we will abide by the policy," said the Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. "But the policy we follow may have more nuances."

Details of what they decide will come on Saturday, as the meeting of nearly 200 priests continues here.

Despite their compliance, leaders of the orders indicated they believed the bishops had been too zealous. In his opening speech -- which received a standing ovation -- the group's president, the Rev. Canice Connors, described zero tolerance as an apocalyptic "war slogan" and "shock rhetoric." The policy, he said, "scapegoats the [sexual] abusers."

Connors's opening statement, coupled with his refusal to let victims groups address the meeting directly, brought on a fresh wave of anger from the victims.

"It's outrageous. It's the diatribe of an arrogant intellectual," said Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "He is nothing less than an apologist for sex offenders."

The views of the priests in religious orders carry weight because they are prominent among church intellectuals. The priests run many of the Catholic universities and seminaries that train future priests and also parish schools.

Their skeptical reception of the bishops' policy comes as there are growing disagreements with the charter, particularly from canon lawyers who say it violates universal church law. But it's unclear what the practical effects of the dissent by the orders might be.

For one thing, many religious order priests are not autonomous. While some schools and hospitals are run independently by religious orders, many of their priests operate in dioceses, under the authority of local bishops.

And the leaders said any changes they make to the charter would be minor and administrative. "We are just adapting it to religious life," said Marita Eddy, spokeswoman for the group.

In Dallas, the bishops agreed to report all allegations of abuse to civil authorities, and to set up a national commission and local commissions to monitor that process. They pledged to open up past records and provide a "full accurate and complete" history for clerics they transfer. They also pledged to set up a support system for victims.

The religious orders said they would meet as many of those standards as their resources allow. Because the conference is a membership group, its decisions are not binding on any of the orders, although leaders said the 150 or so individual orders would likely adopt the recommendations.

One major issue for religious orders is what to do with offending priests after they are discovered. Religious order priests refer to themselves as a "family." They often live together in communities, or monasteries. Unlike diocesan priests, they take a vow of poverty, so they have no assets to live on if they are defrocked or removed from the order.

Keating and others suggested the religious communities would find places for offending priests, such as "working in the archives," or house them in a "safe setting" such as a monastery "so we could keep an eye on them."

"Let me be clear," he added. "These men would not return to any kind of public ministry. They're not out there ministering where they could have any kind of access to the faithful."

But statements by Connors, a Conventual Franciscan, and others left a less clear impression. Donna Markham, from the Southdown Treatment Center in Ontario, Canada, who was chosen to testify before the group, said extensive research was needed to distinguish which offenders "were treatable and which ones should be behind bars."

The treatable ones might be able to return safely to public ministry at an old-age home, for example, if they were supervised, she said.

Connors, who has 25 years of experience treating offenders as the former head of both St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring and Southdown, shares this clinicians' fine-tuning perspective -- an attitude that has become rare since the bishops' June meeting in Dallas.

True pedophiles are incurable, he said, because psychiatry still has not found a reliable way to correct a perverted fantasy life. But abusing priests are much more commonly classified as ephebophiles -- men who are attracted to teenagers. These are people in arrested sexual development and much more responsive to treatment, said Connors.

In his speech, he talked of "sexaholic priests" saved by compassionate therapy, and called their transformation a "holy moment."

The bishops at the Dallas meeting had "no patience for the narrative of recovery and reconciliation," he said.

Instead, they merely bowed to pressure from the media and "unreconciled victims" and ignored "who we really are" -- men who believe in "miracles of grace."