Catholic audit raises complex issues of how to supervise pedo priests

January 19, 2004
NEW YORK — The church review of whether Roman Catholic bishops are doing enough to prevent sex abuse showed that at least 150 credibly accused priests had moved out of their dioceses, raising worries that offenders are living unsupervised in places where most people know nothing about them.

Among those 150 priests, auditors learned that 10 clergymen had left the country, some returning to home dioceses overseas, and at least four could not be found. The report did not specify the countries where they relocated.

The whereabouts of the rest of the group are known to church leaders, and the report said that, where possible, bishops had complied with their new policy and sent confidential notices to the priests' new dioceses.

But victim advocates say that sending a private letter is not enough. The church is leaving potentially dangerous offenders roaming around unsuspecting communities, they say.

Church leaders acknowledge they are still struggling with properly tracking and supervising those men.

"That's a very complex issue," said Kathleen McChesney, director of the bishops' new watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection, who oversaw the audit.

According to the review, most of the priests who moved did so after June 2002, when bishops, under enormous public pressure, adopted their new plan to discipline abusers and enact safeguards for children.

The policy bars priests found guilty by Catholic officials from all church work, but says little about what should be done with them afterward.

McChesney, a former FBI agent, said most of the accused clergy who moved away are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and left their dioceses because they retired.

She said she personally contacted the dioceses where the four priests were missing - in Santa Rosa, California; New York; and the Eastern-rite Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn - to learn what had happened.

"They were individuals who had virtually disappeared," she said.

Her office also tried to find priests who had returned to their home dioceses overseas, but said in the majority of cases, "They're gone."

Since most had never been criminally charged, law enforcement officials could not investigate, she said.

But David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was just as concerned about the status of the accused priests whose whereabouts are known.

More than 325 of the United States' 46,000 clergy have either resigned or have been barred from church work since the crisis erupted two years ago this month in the Archdiocese of Boston, then spread nationwide.

Clohessy said bishops should send public notice to every parish and all diocesan employees that an abusive priest is living in their community, and "if he shows up at your parochial school and offers to tutor children, and if he offers to help with confession, don't let him."

However, many in the church worry that widespread community notification would be unfair.

Many of the accused men had only one victim years or even decades ago, some say. The majority are not pedophiles, who prey on prepubescent children and are almost certain to offend again, but instead molested adolescents and could have a better chance of stopping their behavior, they say.

But an expert on sexual abuse who has advised the Archdiocese of Boston said that thinking is wrong.

David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said few of the Catholic cases have been vetted by law enforcement because they came to light after the statutes of limitations had expired. That means no official assessment has been conducted of what danger these men pose, he said.

"I still think there are considerable opportunities for people to get out under the radar screen," he said.

The review by McChesney's office is the first of four reports from the bishops on the abuse crisis. The audit looked at how well America's 195 dioceses were complying with the new sex abuse policy.

Religious orders, which count about one-third of U.S. priests as members, are separately taking steps such as hiring a private company, to help them monitor guilty clergy.

Clohessy, from the Survivors Network, said he would feel more hopeful about such efforts if law enforcement played a role.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota, said priests cannot work within a diocese without the bishop's permission, so confidential notice is sometimes enough. Cupich is on a bishops' committee exploring whether a national database of abusive clergy should be created.

Still, Cupich said he and other bishops often do notify law enforcement authorities when an abusive priest moves into their dioceses, and he sends word to his parishes if a priest who poses a risk relocates.

Concerns over libel and other legal matters restrict how much the bishops can say publicly, McChesney said.

"I think that bishops for the most part want to be very clear with their people about who in fact is eligible for ministry and who is not," Cupich said. "I would err on the side of protecting the child." –Sapa-AP

Related links
Boston archdiocese crippled by a $85 million in sex abuse settlements [18/12/2003]
Oz pedo priest sentenced to jail for sex abuses [27/11/2003]


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