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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 the church.

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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests