|Effort to monitor
priests falls short, groups claim
By Robin Evans - Conta Costa Times
Sunday, Decemer 12, 2004
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
"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
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
"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
"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."