diocese adopts strict sexual misconduct policy
Background checks required; laity will advise,
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
"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
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
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
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."
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)