Catholic Church Issues Sex Abuse Rule
By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer
Saturday January 12, 2002
Nearly two decades have passed since a child molestation case involving
a Roman Catholic priest in New Orleans created a national scandal.
Yet even now, as another high profile case heads to court, the church
is still struggling with how to punish pedophiles in its ranks.
The Vatican published new rules Tuesday ordering
church officials worldwide to swiftly inform the Holy See of such
cases. But it also declared the cases subject to secrecy, prompting
debate about whether the regulations will build or erode trust in
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston announced a policy
Wednesday mandating that all clergy and volunteers in his archdiocese
report allegations of abuse of minors to law enforcement authorities.
Law had opposed mandatory reporting, but reversed
course as details became known in the case of a defrocked Massachusetts
priest, John Geoghan, suspected of molesting dozens of people.
Geoghan, 66, who goes on trial Monday, had been moved
from parish to parish for years, even though the archdiocese had
evidence he sexually abused children. Geoghan also faces 84 civil
lawsuits. More than 130 people have claimed he fondled or raped
them during the three decades he served in Boston-area parishes.
"This particular abuse certainly has done serious
harm to the confidence of Catholics in their priests and in the
leadership of the church,'' said Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer
and former spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops. "It also has done a great deal to hurt the morale of good,
decent hardworking priests.''
Bishops have worked for years to change the way the
church handles abuse, forming study committees, scouring personnel
files for overlooked allegations and developing policies to improve
responses to complaints.
Pope John Paul II has expressed solidarity with victims
and several U.S. bishops have publicly apologized. U.S. dioceses
have paid millions of dollars in settlements.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, one of three authors of a
1985 report to the bishops' conference warning more must be done
to stop abuse, said some progress has been made. Bishops no longer
shuffle accused priests from parish to parish, and some of the cases
being heard now concern abuse that occurred years ago.
Still, he believes many bishops refuse to publicly
discuss allegations because that could shake believers' trust in
the authority of priests and the church.
"It's so profoundly embarrassing a problem. The
institution doesn't want to further embarrass itself,'' said Doyle,
who testifies regularly on behalf of victims. "There are deep issues
of power and prestige involved.''
That 1985 report to the bishops' conference came
the same year that former priest Gilbert Gauthe pleaded guilty in
Louisiana to sex charges involving 11 boys. He was sentenced to
20 years without probation or parole but won early release. In 1996,
he was accused of fondling a 3-year-old boy in Texas; he pleaded
no contest and was sentenced to probation.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops'
conference, said the new Vatican regulations showed the pope's commitment
to address the issue, while protecting the confidentiality of the
accuser and accused.
"There are very few offenses considered so grave
that they're reported to the Vatican. This is included now as one
of them,'' she said.
But critics felt the regulations signaled that the
Vatican cares more about protecting the church than preventing abuse.
"I think the rules are a step backward and are more focused
on the accused than on the victims and on more secrecy, which of
course is the single factor that enables these things to occur,''
said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors
Network of Those Abused by Priests.
The mandatory reporting policy Law enacted in Boston
comes years after other dioceses, including the archdioceses of
Chicago and New Orleans, enacted similar policies.
Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Catholic
Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," blames a culture of
secrecy in the church and an obsession with "concealing negative
information rather than truly investigating it."
Clohessy, whose brother is a priest, believes the
same dynamic that prevents police from reporting wrongdoing by fellow
officers keeps priests from exposing their colleagues.
"The priesthood is a small, shrinking, beleaguered, misunderstood
club of men whose primary support system is one another,'' said
Clohessy, who was abused when he was a boy.
Shaw suggested careful and repeated psychological
screening of candidates for the priesthood and close monitoring
once men are ordained.
"I think everyone belatedly recognizes that the authorities
would have been well advised at the start to be more candid rather
than hush it up and sweep it under the rug,'' he said.