Policy on priest abuse solidifying, Keeler says

Baltimore cardinal names monsignor to oversee handling of allegations

April 26, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Brushing aside reports of a lack of consensus among church leaders, Cardinal William H. Keeler returned to Baltimore last night from Rome expressing confidence that the U.S. bishops will adopt a "zero tolerance" policy toward sexually abusive clergy when the bishops meet in Dallas in June.

Keeler, speaking on the steps of the Basilica of the Assumption, said the cardinals who traveled to Rome this week for an extraordinary Vatican summit on clergy sexual abuse returned with high-level assurances that the U.S. bishops' conference can adopt a strict national policy that will be binding on every diocese in the country.

"An issue on everyone's mind, it seems, is zero tolerance on the part of the church after a credible act of child sexual abuse by one of the clergy," Keeler said.

The cardinal added that because of the encouragement of Pope John Paul II and top Vatican officials, "we have the green light to go to Dallas to be sure that the national policy that we look forward to spelling out there will include this notion.

"And I will certainly push for an unambiguous use of this approach when we meet in Dallas."

While spokesmen for victims of clerical sex abuse and others in the United States have voiced disappointment, even dismay, that zero tolerance was not specifically addressed in the communique the cardinals issued at the end of their two-day summit, Keeler said public expectations might have been too high.

The delegation of cardinals cannot enact policy for the American Catholic church, he indicated; only the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the body of about 300 bishops that will meet in June, can do that.

"The group that met the last couple of days was not a legislative body. You might say it was a very high-level thought tank," he said. "But out of it, we go back to prepare ourselves to go to our bishops' meeting in Dallas in June, and there I certainly expect that we will have that kind of a policy across the country in every diocese."

Keeler said the national policy will also include mandatory reporting of sexual abuse allegations to civil authorities, the formation of lay review boards to assist in making appropriate decisions, and provisions spelling out how dioceses should reach out to victims and their families.

"I am very confident that our national policy will include all of these elements," he said. "They've been in place here for some years."

Although zero tolerance is not part of the written child abuse policy of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, it has in effect been Keeler's policy, said Raymond P. Kempisty, a spokesman for the cardinal.

The cardinal would not allow anyone he believes credibly accused of sexual abuse to return to ministry, his spokesman said. Once the national policy is adopted, the Baltimore policy will be reviewed and revised, Kempisty added.

Keeler announced yesterday that he had appointed Monsignor Richard W. Woy, who oversees property and fiscal matters for the archdiocese, to head a new office to oversee the handling of allegations of abuse made against priests and other church representatives, such as Catholic school teachers.

Woy was previously the director of priest personnel, where he supervised the assignments of Keeler's clergy. The new office will consolidate functions that were spread over various departments.

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