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Sex-abuse Plan Draws Skepticism

Some want better warnings; priests fear false charges

By Kevin Simpson
Denver Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 01, 2002 - Catholic victim advocates charged Monday that the amended sex-abuse policy released late last week by the Denver archdiocese - like others emerging nationwide - falls short in rooting out past transgressions and fostering openness for future victims.

The policy also has come under spirited discussion among local priests, some of whom say it doesn't sufficiently address bishops' culpability or protection against false accusations.

The revised policy, distributed to clergy and seminarians last week and available on the archdiocese website - - integrates zero tolerance for sex abuse of children and other provisions mandated at the landmark Dallas conference of Catholic bishops in June.

But for Connie Ross, Colorado chapter leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), one particular aspect hit home.

Ross says she was sexually abused as a teen at a church retreat when she lived in Wisconsin. Yet even under Denver's tougher policy, allegations of abuse against a priest wouldn't be revealed to people at his previous assignments.

"That jumped out at me. They're still not doing enough, (not) making that person known in the parishes and institutions where they served in the past," Ross said. "And if that's the case, there are still children out there who can't receive support. It absolutely doesn't go far enough in the past to publicize accusations."

National representatives of SNAP, who pressured bishops for change in Dallas, remain unconvinced that the new mandates will quell the scandal that has rocked the church since January.

The most recent allegations first emerged in Boston about abusive priests who moved from parish to parish to conceal their actions and avoid controversy.

Critics cite inconsistent policies that sometimes maintain a veil of secrecy - including the Denver archdiocese's refusal to reveal the members of its response team, which reviews allegations of abuse.

"It's precisely the way it was before Dallas - bishops are all over the map," said David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based executive director of SNAP. "Some name a review board; some refuse to name the members. It's a huge issue. How can survivors begin to feel comfortable disclosing their abuse to a body when they don't even know who serves on it?"

Denver's response team consists of five members, including three laypeople, in compliance with the Dallas directives for a lay majority. Only the Rev. Tom Fryar, archdiocese vicar for clergy, has been identified.

Other members are a priest who is also a clinical psychologist and three lay Catholics - two women and one man.

The panel reviews allegations and makes recommendations to the archbishop. Under the zero-tolerance policy, any confirmed act of abuse against a minor requires permanent removal from the ministry.

So far, the Denver archdiocese has received virtually no reaction from the laity, spokesman Fran Maier said.

"People need time to absorb it, and there haven't been any cases to try it," he said. "The experience we were going through in the opening months (of the scandal) was generalized anger at the church for this problem, but not really a local anger at specific incidents where the ball was dropped because of this policy."

Although the policies are effective now, official approval from the Vatican could take months.

Meanwhile, priests have weighed in.

The Rev. Pat Kennedy of Our Lady of Grace parish in Denver said clergy have met three times to discuss the new policy, and strong feelings emerged on several fronts.

"If I were to criticize the document a little bit, I did not hear anything said about what happens to bishops who've been flagrant about moving people around from place to place," Kennedy said. "If I'm part of making that document, I'm going to have to look at myself first before handing out penance and punishment to anyone else."

He said many priests expressed concern about protection from false accusations but seemed resigned to such a stiff policy of removal at the first credible allegation.

"I don't know what else you could do," Kennedy said. "Are we sufficiently protected? Some things you can't be totally protected from anyway."

He said that concern over the scandal has been minimal among members of the congregation in his north Denver community.

"I'm in a very blue-collar parish," Kennedy said. "They're more concerned about making ends meet. Money matters are of great concern. I've spoken frankly about it in the parish and gotten a few remarks, mostly positive, from some of the parishioners."

SNAP's Clohessy said that despite a concerted public relations effort by the church during the Dallas conference and since, policies today are not all that different.

"They're a little more thorough, broader and sensitively written documents," he said. "But they remain just that - written documents. We believe parents should be cautious and not think everything's hunky-dory because there's a new written document and it sure sounds swell."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests