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New Hampshire diocese adopts strict sexual misconduct policy

Background checks required; laity will advise, review

By ANNMARIE TIMMINS - Concord Monitor
December 30, 2003

Bishop John McCormack released a revised policy against sexual misconduct in the Catholic church yesterday that bars guilty priests from ministry, requires background checks on staff and lets the laity police the church's response to allegations.

McCormack also issued a new code of conduct for priests and others in the church that instructs priests to live celibate lives and refrain from being alone in private places with children.

"Sharing in the ministry of Christ not only is a great privilege for us but also a profound responsibility," McCormack wrote yesterday. "We are to conduct ourselves in a spirit and manner that allows Christ to act and speak through our work."

The new policies are almost entirely the work of a 12-person task force of Catholics and Protestants who McCormack asked last year to help evaluate the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse. McCormack called together the task force in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and many Catholics doubted that McCormack would embrace the group's findings once the media spotlight had died down.

Donna Sytek of Salem, chairwoman of the task force, saw the new policy last week and said yesterday that each of the group's recommendations has been adopted. "We are pleased and satisfied that we were listened to," she said. Those changes must be enforced to be effective, she said, but Sytek said she believes they will be.

"This has been such a high-profile exercise that they can't let it fail," she said. "All eyes will be watching, and I think there is a real commitment on the part of the bishop and diocese."

The new policies, which were posted on the diocesan Web site yesterday afternoon, will go into effect March 19.

In the meantime, the state attorney general's office will review the sexual misconduct portion of the new procedures for compliance with the agreement reached last year between the diocese and the state, said James Rosenberg, assistant attorney general. In that agreement, the diocese avoided criminal prosecution for child endangerment by agreeing, among other things, to report all child abuse to state officials even when the alleged victim waits until adulthood to come forward.

The ambiguous language of the state's mandatory reporting law had allowed the diocese to keep secret its past clergy sexual abuse because the alleged victims were no longer children by the time they came forward.

According to the policy released yesterday, the state's reporting expectations will be met.

Priests, deacons, staff and volunteers are required to report all suspected sexual abuse to the authorities - even those complaints that come from adults who were abused years earlier as children. Anyone who does not report abuse will be disciplined, possibly even lose his or her job, according to the policy.

At the task force's urging, the diocese will now do background checks on all church staff, paid and volunteer. Those who work most closely with children will also undergo a criminal background check.

Diane Murphy Quinlan, a diocesan spokeswoman, said yesterday that all Catholic schools have been doing background checks since the 1990s. All parishes have not, she said.

A board of clergy and lay people will continue to advise McCormack in his investigation of and response to clergy abuse allegations. But the board will now be asked to do more, including reviewing the policy every two years for weaknesses and auditing McCormack's staff to ensure they are enforcing the policy.

The church is creating an additional role for laity with the new Safe Environmental Council and Coordinates. Quinlan said lay members of the church will serve in both roles to ensure that the policy is enforced in schools and parishes around the state.

Also, the policy puts a new emphasis on responding first to the accuser. McCormack and other bishops have admitted that in the past their primary concern was caring for the accused priest, not the alleged victim.

The new policy, however, will not satisfy some of the requests Sytek's group received in the months it was rewriting the church's sexual misconduct policy.

Parishioners have not been given a role in choosing which priests are assigned to their church. Sytek's group passed this concern onto McCormack but did not include it as part of its official policy recommendations because members felt the request fell outside the policy's scope.

The new policy, however, does require that McCormack and his assistants look at a priest's record before assigning him and that any appointments meet the expectations of the "Christian faithful."

Also, priests' records will not be kept forever, as many Catholics have requested. Instead, the church will keep all records in a central place until the priest has died or until church law allows, whichever is longer. Currently, church law allows records to be destroyed shortly after a priest has died.

The new policy was scheduled to be released in June. Quinlan said yesterday it took months longer because McCormack involved so many - victims, clergy and the laity - in editing it.

"We are really grateful for their input," Quinlan said, "because this is really the work of the whole church."


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(The new policies can be found at www.catholicchurchnh.org.
Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 323, or by e-mail at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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