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Effort to monitor priests falls short, groups claim

By Robin Evans - Conta Costa Times
Sunday, Decemer 12, 2004

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SNAP Press Release

The Diocese of San Jose has assigned two priests to watch over four colleagues removed from ministry -- and parish residences -- for sexual misconduct. The Oakland Diocese just hired a retired probation officer to keep tabs on nine priests, including three who moved out of state.

But victims and lay groups are wary of church efforts to monitor wayward priests because they're being told little about them. And national church officials say such efforts are not only inconsistent across the country but inherently inadequate.

"Generally speaking, there's not a real good, efficient way of monitoring these men," said Sheila Horan, assistant director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Finding little comfort

The San Jose and Oakland priests are among about 30 in the Bay Area and thousands nationally whom the Roman Catholic Church is attempting to monitor after suspending them in 2002 for admitted or credible allegations of sex abuse over the past 50 years.

But these efforts, largely unknown even within church circles, have done little to reassure victims and lay groups seeking greater church openness.

"Everything is being done kind of secretly. I don't know the name of anyone who's monitoring any priest," said Evelyn Seely, who's on the steering committee of the Northern California Voice of the Faithful.

"The average Catholic at this point is hoping and praying the church is taking care of all this, but when there's so little transparency, it goes back to 'they didn't do great job before, why should we think they are now?'"

Even lay review boards, established to investigate claims and restore trust in the church's response, are told little if anything about where suspended priests end up. Ed Panelli, a former state Supreme Court justice and chairman of the San Jose Diocese's lay review board, said he frankly "didn't know what was being done."

Leery of putting their faith in the same institution that over the decades moved offenders from parish to parish instead of reporting them to police, Voice of the Faithful is joining the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in renewing calls for the priests' names to be made public.

Even Horan's office believes it's a good idea to name priests who have been credibly accused. But nationwide only a few dioceses have done so. None are in the Bay Area.

"They should tell us, either 'we don't think they are a threat so they're still in ministry,'" she said, "or 'we think it would be best that Father so-and-so no longer be in ministry, and he's not living in a place where he can be monitored' and tell us what that involves."

When the San Francisco archbishop suggested delaying an annual audit until a satisfactory definition of abuse is determined, the Northern California Voice of the Faithful issued a statement saying: "It is the height of folly to wait for a Vatican-inspired redefinition of sexual abuse while some abusers live among us unidentified."

Groups take action

In the meantime, victims groups compile their own lists of names, counting in part on public records in criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits. Last month, SNAP members stood outside Alameda Superior Court to protest a ruling keeping confidential the personnel files of priests in the 160 negligence lawsuits against Northern California dioceses.

Many of these priests would today be registered sex offenders -- and listed on police Web sites -- were it not for criminal statutes of limitations. So when they learn a priest's whereabouts, SNAP sometimes leaflets the neighborhood.

"Knowledge is prevention," said SNAP spokesman Dan McNevin. "Tell us who they are; give parents a chance to look after their own."

Changing the law

When the clergy church-abuse scandals mushroomed three years ago, California extended its statutes of limitations to allow prosecution of clergy who abused children a generation or two ago. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year invalidated the extension, throwing out some 800 criminal indictments.

Charges were dropped against priests who were accused or had confessed. Those already convicted and jailed were freed.

That left bishops balancing their pastoral duty to these priests with concern for the safety of children. And though many victims want them stripped entirely of their sacramental status, many bishops see an advantage in letting them remain as nonministering priests: Keeping them on the straight and narrow is easier if they stay connected to the church -- and dependent on it for living expenses.

"A person who has a support system is more likely to continue in the healing path," said Msgr. Frances Cilia, vicar general of the San Jose Diocese.

No fast answer

But dioceses still are struggling with what kind of support system best reduces the chance for re-offense. It's an issue the U.S. bishops will be discussing, Horan said, but any policy guidelines are far from being adopted.

"There's no model out there. We as a diocese decided that this is just crazy; we need to be much more diligent in our supervision," said Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the Oakland Diocese.

While most dioceses left suspended priests to find their own housing, the San Francisco archdiocese chose to keep its 17 suspended priests in church residences, said spokesman Maurice Healy.

"Obviously we can't have a 24-hour monitoring machine on them," he said. "But we go to extra lengths to be supportive" while still maintaining oversight.

Yet church authority over suspended priests is ultimately limited, notes David Clohessy, SNAP's national director.

One of the most egregious examples is that of Father William Wiebler, a retired Iowa priest and admitted pedophile who in July walked out of a church-run treatment center in St. Louis, Mo. He eventually was found living in an apartment near an elementary school where students cut through his back yard. Neighbors said he often sat on his back porch wearing only a thin robe.

His whereabouts were discovered not by the church but by St. Louis SNAP members alerted by one of his victims -- Clohessy. The Iowa diocese admitted Wiebler was "beyond our power."

In the end, activists believe that while naming priests offers short-term reassurances, the farthest-reaching answer is a legal one.

"The longer-term solution is to have bishops walk the halls of statehouses with us and fight to bring back the extension on the criminal statute of limitations," said Clohessy. "We believe it's the most effective reform."

SNAP has successfully lobbied to raise the age by which victims can pursue criminal and civil charges for childhood abuse in Missouri, Illinois and Connecticut.

And even though it failed legally, California's attempt to retroactively extend the criminal statute of limitations was a success in the eyes of victims advocates.

"We frankly felt that decision may have made California the safest place for kids anywhere," said Clohessy. "The priests were exposed, and even those set free. A suspicious parent can do a Google search and find a name."


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests