The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

SNAP Press Statement

Statement Regarding Zero Tolerance


June 16, 2005

Statement by Barbara Blaine of Chicago (312 399 4747),
SNAP President and Founder

Three years ago, bishops said "one strike." Now they seem to be backpedalling.

Three years ago, bishops said the National Review Board was independent. Now they're backpedalling.

Three years ago, bishops said sexual abuse need not involve touching. Now they're backpedalling.

Three years ago, bishops said the National Review Board was independent. Now they're backpedalling.

Time and time again since Dallas, bishops have moved backwards toward the failed policies of the past, not forwards toward real prevention in the future.

There have been several major flaws in the bishops' guidelines.
1) They are vague.
2) They are weak.
3) They are narrow.
4) They have no real enforcement mechanism.
5) Key provisions are only sporadically implemented.

They are vague, because they call for "compassion" and "outreach" with little or no definition or clarity.

They are weak, because there are no consequences beyond the suspension and optional defrocking of molesters and require no disciplining of supervisors and colleagues who enable predatory clergy.

They are narrow, because they cover only predator priests, not silent co-workers or complicit bishops. Nor do they include nuns, seminarians, or church workers who fail now to fingerprint employees, undergo abuse training, hide abusers, or allow suspended priests access to children.

They have no real enforcement mechanism, because once a year, based largely on self-reports by church leaders, devout, hand-picked Catholic volunteers issue one document that consistently shows 95% of the bishops are complying with the minimal pledges they made in 2002.

Key provisions are only sporadically implemented, because bishops can get by with sporadic implementation. We still see agonizing hair-splitting by bishops to avoid removing particularly popular or powerful accused priests. We still see only begrudging, forced, occasional "baby steps" toward the "openness" to which bishops have repeatedly committed themselves.

We take little comfort in the fact that "zero tolerance" remains the official policy when some bishops still ignore that pledge and many, if not most, would rather not have it at all.

We take little comfort in the fact that bishops are still agreeing to fund yet-another study when simple, common sense prevention steps that would safeguard kids are still not being taken.

And we are distressed that in three years, none of America's 300 bishops have proposed a single step to strengthen it in any meaningful way.

Now to the proposed changes.

First, bishops want to give themselves more choices, re-instating the chance to use an internal, arabitrary and unjust church statute of limitations to block victims from exposing and removing accused priests. (Already, they consistently use civil and criminal statutes to evade justice, keep secrets hidden and deny justice and healing to victims.)

Second, bishops want to define sex abuse more vaguely, replacing a well-established definition adopted years ago by the Canadian bishops with more arcane language citing canon law and the Sixth Commandment. More vagueness equals more bishop's discretion which equals more chance for abuse.

Third, bishops want to "pass the buck" even more, by "clarifying" the "autonomy of religious orders," absolving themselves of responsibility to protect their vulnerable flock and heal their wounded parishioners from a sex offender whose paycheck happens to come from the Jesuits or Franciscans, rather than from the diocese.

Fourth, bishops want more control over the allegedly once independent National Review Board. They want a formal requirement that any appointee must first have the approval of his or her local bishop, a mandate that can only reduce the effectiveness of the NRB.

Bishops want other changes too. While not formally being adopted today, it is clear from the proposal that in the future, bishops want

-- to put back into active ministries some admitted, proven or credibly accused molesters they deem "rehabilitated," and
-- to put clerics on the National Review Board.

Together, these immediate and long term weakenings of the guidelines are disturbing. The weakening of the NRB, both on paper and in reality, is perhaps more disturbing.

At first, it was touted as independent. Now, bishops are insisting that it is not.

At first, it included prominent, outspoken individuals. Now, it does not.

It once included some members with some experience with clergy sex abuse. Now, it essentially does not.

On one hand, is it really a big deal? These are words on paper, when actions, not words, and what protect the vulnerable and heal the wounded.

On the other hand, when you won't even promise to do better, it's unlikely that you will actually do better. As we've seen time and time again over the past three years, bishops are again back tracking from the impressive-sounding pledges they made in Dallas around sexual abuse.

They are softening the definition of the crime. They are giving themselves permission to again hide behind an archaic, arbitrary and dangerously restrictive time limit. They are further eroding what little influence the National Review Board may have once held.

A few lay people and victims will disclose and deplore this backsliding, but to no avail of course.

And those criticisms risk shifting the focus from what matters most: what bishops are doing in their dioceses, and what bishops are NOT doing - - - consistently living up to the vague and minimal promises they've already made, and failing to improve those sporadically followed promises.

By rumoring or threatening to scuttle "zero tolerance," or the so-called audits, or yet another upcoming study, bishops succeed in removing from consideration any real progress or reform.

Finally, for the first time, bishops acknowledge that "many, perhaps most" of them disapprove of the zero tolerance.

Few, however, are denying that zero tolerance keeps kids safe. They rely on no studies or research to challenge zero tolerance. Instead, they essentially cite public opinion, and rightfully acknowledge that Catholics are too upset and skeptical at this stage, so the return of proven, admitted, or credibly accused abusive clerics is simply "premature."

This never was a tough, binding national policy. It's even less of one today.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - SNAP
David Clohessy of St. Louis MO, SNAP National Director 314 566 9790
Peter Isely of Milwaukee WI, SNAP Midwest Director 414 429 7259
Mary Grant of Long Beach CA, SNAP Western Director 626 419 2930
Mark Serrano of Leesburg VA, SNAP Board Member 703 771 9606
Janet Patterson of Conway Springs KS, SNAP Board Member 620 456 2330




Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests