Catholic bishops form panel to examine sexual abuse

June 18, 1993|By Boston Globe

NEW ORLEANS -- The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has named a special committee to examine sexual abuse in the church, acknowledging that the problem has sapped clergy morale, diminished public confidence and pushed aside too many other issues in the bishops' conference.

"I want to make sure that all of us bishops understand the depth and the seriousness, the pain and the agony of this problem and why it strikes at the very heart of the church's trust level and credibility level," said Bishop John B. Kinney of Bismarck, N.D., chairman of the new Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

The panel will make recommendations on how to prevent clergy members from engaging in sexual abuse and how to handle abuse cases when they do occur. The panel will eventually consider other aspects of sexual abuse, including steps the church can take to reduce the incidence of abuse among families, officials said.

The bishops also received recommendations yesterday from a 30-member think tank they convened last February urging immediate action on sexual abuse. "The hierarchy's authority and credibility in the United States is eroding because of a perceived inability to deal more effectively with the problem of child sexual abuse," said a report from that meeting.

Among the recommendations was a rule that priests and other church workers "who have offended against children should never return to any ministry that includes minors." It was not clear whether that would bar priests from parish work.

The consultation -- which included church officials, victims, victims' family members, mental health professionals and others suggested, however, that recovering abusers not be barred from all ministry.

The think-tank recommendations now go to the new sexual abuse panel.

The panel was named as some abuse victims complained that lTC the bishops were unwilling to discuss the sometimes antagonistic treatment they said they had experienced from church officials.

Members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests have picketed the bishops' semiannual meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here, demanding that bishops pledge not to sue those who complain publicly about past abuse or use other tactics that "re-traumatize clergy abuse victims."

Barbara Blaine of Chicago, national director of the Survivors Network, said officials of the bishops' conference had rebuffed the group's efforts to meet with them this week.

But the February think tank did include some survivors. The recommendations included uniform national standards for seminarians.

"It remains possible and probable" that a seminarian who is considered a potential abuser "can be rejected by one diocese or religious order and still find a place in another diocese or order," said the Rev. Canice Connors, the chief of one of the three Catholic treatment centers handling clergy offenders and the chairman of the think tank.

"Now is the time to collaborate in defining national minimum standards which would prevent seminary 'hopping,'" said Father Connors, president of the St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md.

He said the bishops could "breathe a sigh of relief" that it was highly unlikely that a sexually abusive priest would today simply be transferred from parish to parish or diocese to diocese. "We need to ensure that the same standard applies to our seminarians," he said.

Some bishops were defensive about the abuse issue. "One case of abuse is one too many. . . . But we need to make the point that the vast, vast majority are good, balanced, healthy, holy and hard-working men," said Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J.

But the chairman of the new sexual abuse panel promised to increase awareness of the issue among the bishops.

"Victims, their families and their friends have felt betrayed by those they trusted and who were given to them in authority," Bishop Kinney said. "And then once abused and betrayed, some in authority did not listen to their cries for help or were perceived as not hearing them."

Ms. Blaine of the Survivors Network said she had been disappointed in the bishops' response so far.

Ms. Blaine said she was among a group who met with a three-bishop delegation last November in Washington, a meeting she called "a glimmer of hope."

"That meeting was the first time the bishops sat and listened to our stories, and we appreciated that they did so . . . but they made promises to us they haven't fulfilled," Ms. Blaine said.

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