five-year battle vs. sex abuse
Accusations decline, but criticisms persist
Sunday, June 10, 2007
the Rev. Gerald Sudol believed he would be kicked out of the Catholic priesthood.
A man had accused Sudol of molesting him nearly two decades ago, and the
Archdiocese of Newark, after investigating, settled with the man's family in the
high five figures. Sudol was on administrative leave.
A canonical trial acquitted Sudol and he was reassigned to work,
at a hospice. This February, an archdiocese church even threw a festive jubilee
for the 25th anniversary of his ordination, publicizing the party for "Fr.
Gerry" on the Web.
The case highlights the complexities facing the
Catholic Church since it adopted the so-called "Dallas Charter" in the
wake of damning revelations that church leaders for decades covered up child sex
abuse by priests. The charter, hashed out at the U.S. Catholic Bishop's Conference
meeting in Dallas five years ago this week, mandated all accusations be investigated
and certain steps be taken to prevent future abuse.
The charter also urged
bishops to promote reconciliation with victims of clergy sex abuse, many of whom
felt ignored or chastised for coming forward.
By all accounts the situation
has improved at least somewhat since 2002, as dioceses have used the charter --
formally called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People --
as a guide, and as more church employees and volunteers become sensitive to signs
of a type of abuse that once seemed unthinkable to most Catholics.
far more astute now than we were, say, 15 or 20 years ago," said Bishop William
Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a prepared
statement. "I think across the board we've learned that sexual abuse of children
occurs not only in the church, but everywhere, and that's really important. I
think that people are now better prepared to spot abuse and to provide a safe
Others agree that the issue is now more out in the open.
Now, "kids are somewhat more apt to tell (adults about abuse), parents
more apt to believe, families more apt to call 911, police more apt to investigate,
DAs more apt to charge, juries more apt to convict," said David Clohessy,
national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, "All
that is extraordinarily positive."
Yet Clohessy -- among the bishops'
most prominent, persistent critics -- and other victims advocates have said the
bishops' reactions to the scandal are lacking, that the largely voluntary nature
of the efforts have proven inadequate.
They complain that in the aftermath
of the scandal, the bishops conference has not done all it can to ensure public
safety, as it does not publicize names of credibly accused priests. They say bishops
have effectively avoided accountability for harmful diocesan decisions of the
past, continue to keep credibly accused priests' personnel files private, and
too often sanction tough legal tactics by diocesan lawyers against victims.
Advocates for priests, on the other hand, complain bishops have often been
too quick to suspend priests after accusations. More significant, perhaps, no
one has yet devised a universally acceptable way to supervise clergy who have
abused but whose crimes can't be prosecuted because of expired statutes of limitations.
In the Dallas Charter, bishops conceded the scandal was "a crisis
without precedent in our times." They apologized and vowed to diminish its
stain through a panoply of efforts: investigating abuse claims more methodically;
barring men from ministry who had committed even one sex offense against a minor;
reconciling with emotionally scarred victims; training church workers to prevent
abuse; and being "open and transparent" to the public about child sex
abuse while protecting reputations of the accused.
The scandal rocked the
American church like nothing before or since. A study released in its aftermath
showed that 4,392 priests, 4 percent of the American total, were credibly accused
of sex abuse from 1950 to 2002, with more abuse occurring in the 1970s than in
any other decade. The number of new accusations have since declined, from 1,092
in 2004 to 714 in 2006. Most dioceses are now receiving a handful each year.
the 195 dioceses in the United States have paid more than $1.5 billion in settlements,
therapy and legal fees over child sex abuse since 1950, including settlements
of hundreds of millions of dollars since 2002. In New Jersey, the Newark Archdiocese
has paid out about $3.2 million; the Paterson Diocese $7.2 million; the Metuchen
Diocese $795,000; the Trenton Diocese $926,000; and the Camden Diocese $6.7 million.
Victims groups have repeatedly insisted the charter's
"open and transparent" clause compels the bishops conference to set
up a national database listing credibly accused priests, to reduce the odds they
can deceive others and abuse again.
Church officials have refused, saying
they could be sued for slander, given that most of the accused were never charged
Yet a de facto database of sorts has emerged on the independently
run Web site www.bishopaccountability.org, which since 2003 has listed names of
accused priests, diocese by diocese, who have been named in news articles, with
links to the articles, short summaries of known accusations, and the priests'
"Consolidating that information is a public service,"
said Terry McKiernan, president of Massachusetts-based BishopAccountability.org
Inc. "We're not saying the people are all guilty. That's not our role. That
would be totally out of line. What we think is important is that it be possible
to comprehend the magnitude of the problem, and you've got to have a list for
"The church has always been in the business of keeping
these secret. ... So they (abusive priests) are not going to appear on any kind
of Megan's Law list even if they're really bad. So our site winds up being a kind
of Megan's Law list for accused priests."
He said the Web site has
250,000 unique users and that even clergy have used it as a "default registry."
"Priests write us and say, 'You got this guy's middle initial wrong.'
Sometimes religious orders or dioceses will write to us. The Jesuits wrote to
us last week: 'You had this guy listed as a Jesuit. He's not a Jesuit anymore.'"
A VEXING PROBLEM
Over the last five years, the question of what
to do with credibly accused priests has grown in significance.
victims advocates say outright laicization -- formal removal from the priesthood
--is not always the best solution because cutting ties between the diocese and
a priest often places a man who has abused children out on the street with no
supervision of any kind.
James Hanley, New Jersey's worst known clergy
sex offender, was laicized in 2003. After that, the diocese cut ties with him
except for continuing his charitable monthly stipend. Diocese officials claim
no responsibility for his activities.
For a time, Hanley lived quietly
in a senior housing complex in Paterson. Then, in 2005, he moved to a new neighborhood.
His past victims, who worried he might abuse again, distributed leaflets to neighbors
and found out that Hanley already had befriended families and children who didn't
know of his past.
Several of his victims say the church should find a way
to supervise Hanley.
"I have clients who feel strongly on both sides
of the argument," said lawyer Greg Gianforcaro of Phillipsburg, who represented
21 victims of Hanley in a nearly $5 million settlement with the Paterson diocese.
"Some of the clients want the church to remain involved. They don't necessarily
want the priest laicized because once that laicization occurs, then the church
washes their hands of him, and they in fact lose control of him.
wants them to be a priest. ... What they want is for there to be a procedural
process in place where the church can exercise some control over them so they
can make sure that these men never abuse children again," he said.
acknowledged psychotic, Hanley was arrested 13 months ago on assault charges stemming
from an incident at a Secaucus hotel. He has been in jail since missing a court
date in October.
For years, he has drawn a charitable monthly stipend of
nearly $2,000 from the diocese. It has been suspended while he is incarcerated.
Kenneth Mullaney, a lawyer for the Paterson diocese, said that last year the diocese
conditioned the stipend on proof that Hanley took prescribed medication.
Bishop Arthur Serratelli said it's unrealistic to expect dioceses to watch over
former priests, even if bishops had helped shield them from police investigations
that could have led to convictions.
"The public safety is not within
the competency of the church," he said.
DIFFICULT TO PROVE
Dallas Charter's most controversial provision was the measure barring any priest
from ministry after even one credible accusation he sexually abused a minor. To
many bishops and victims alike, it seemed an obvious step after the scandal.
five years later, determining whether accusations of decades-old abuse are credible
remains difficult, given that most accused priests have only one or two people
coming forward making claims, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the
Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.
"How do you prove
it? It's like a sexual harassment case in the workplace. Nobody sees it, there's
no evidence. It's one person's word against another," Reese said. "We
don't have a police force to investigate crimes. We don't have a district attorney,
or judges and grand juries, let alone a system to prosecute someone and try to
get at the truth."
The charter mandates that each diocese form a review
board with a lay majority to investigate claims and forward recommendations to
the bishop. If a bishop agrees a claim is credible, he sends it to the Vatican's
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which can direct the diocese
to hold a canonical trial.
Among the penalties at that trial are laicization
or a lesser penalty in which the priest is barred from ministry but lives a life
of "prayer and penance" while formally remaining a priest.
start to finish, the investigative process can take several years. The Newark
Archdiocese has a priest, the Rev. William Dowd, who has been out of ministry
since he was accused in April 2002 and who is still awaiting results from a canonical
trial held in January 2005, said James Goodness, an archdiocese spokesman.
Ritty, a New York lawyer who has defended accused priests in about 250 cases since
2002, said he fears some diocesan review boards are too quick to rule against
priests, sometimes deeming an accusation credible when there is little evidence.
He criticized the "zero-tolerance" policy, which automatically
bars a credibly accused priest from ministry, as overly harsh and out-of-step
with proper jurisprudence.
"I have never seen anything where one-size-fits-all
works," he said. "The punishment has to relate to the crime. In the
civil (court) realm, we have varying degrees of classifications for sex offenders.
But in the Dallas Charter, there is one. Whether you were raping 7-year-olds or
somehow got involved at 27 with a 17-year-old, you get the same punishment (decades
TRAINING AND FINGERPRINTING
Among the most tangible
differences in the everyday life of the church since 2002: Diocese Web sites now
help people make accusations. Many also encourage victims to contact prosecutors.
And dioceses have given hundreds of thousands of church workers -- even lay employees
and volunteers -- "safe environment" training to recognize signs of
Fingerprinting also has been mandated. In the Metuchen Diocese,
fingerprinting found that four people two volunteers and two nonclergy church
employees had criminal records as sex offenders, said Lawrence Nagle, director
of the diocese's Office of Child and Youth Protection. The workers were terminated
or told they could not volunteer.
Yet some, including many volunteers being
trained and fingerprinted, have bristled at the notion that they should be subjected
to classes or fingerprinting. Clohessy, while saying these are helpful, worries
that bishops have effectively used training and fingerprinting to draw attention
away from themselves.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people who receive
that training had and have nothing to do with the crisis," he said. "It's
not a Catholic lay person's abuse-and-cover-up scandal. It's a Catholic hierarchy
Jeff Diamant may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (973) 392-1547.
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