Religious orders set to adopt milder stance on sex abusers

Officials part with bishops, would not force out clergy

August 09, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - While the U.S. bishops have adopted a get-tough "one-strike-and-you're- out" policy toward clergy who sexually abuse minors, the leaders of the Roman Catholic religious orders representing a third of the nation's priests say they will not force offenders from their fold.

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which represents 20,000 priests and brothers in about 120 religious orders, is meeting here this week behind closed doors to decide how to carry out the policy approved by the bishops nearly two months ago in Dallas.

Officials said yesterday that although they will keep sexual abusers away from minors, forcing their members who have abused children to resign from their religious orders runs counter to their mission and is not an option.

"We are like a family," said the Rev. Ted Keating, a Marist priest and executive director of the conference. "These men take a vow of poverty. The congregation agrees in a family way to take care of them for life."

Although they would not be allowed to work in parishes or schools, members of religious orders who have abused minors might be given administrative jobs in the offices of their order. And although they would not be allowed to celebrate Mass publicly, they might be allowed to do so in the housing they share, which is usually on church property.

The religious orders' stance drew fire from the most visible group of sexual abuse victims, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

"The religious orders and the many schools, hospitals and other facilities that their clerics minister to continue to serve as safe havens for felony sexual offenders in the priesthood," Mark Serrano, a SNAP board member who was abused as a child by a priest, said at a news conference here.

"They said it themselves: There will always be a place in their family for their fellow brothers regardless of their sins and crimes," Serrano said. "The culture of the religious orders is such that secrecy and cover-up is even easier than it has been in the dioceses across America."

Keating, the orders' conference director, countered that religious orders, with their highly structured communities and vows of obedience, are ideal places to supervise sex offenders after they receive psychological treatment.

"Our practice will continue," he said. "We'll take them back into the community after treatment."

Of the approximately 300 priests who have been removed from ministry since January after being accused of sexual abuse, dozens belong to religious orders. In Baltimore, the Rev. Alfred A. Dean, a Josephite priest, was removed last month from St. Francis Xavier parish in East Baltimore and was ordered to move to the provincial headquarters on Calvert Street after being accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with a 14-year-old boy.

The policy approved by the bishops - which permanently removes from ministry clergy who have committed or commit a single act of sexual abuse and which forbids them to wear the collar or refer to themselves as "father" - effectively only applies to the priests who reside in a diocese and answer to a local bishop.

Although many bishops, including Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, say they would like Vatican approval to defrock priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, that kind of "zero tolerance" is unacceptable to the men who lead religious orders such as the Jesuit Fathers, the Franciscan friars or the Benedictine monks.

Their objections are both religious and practical, they say. Priests and brothers in religious orders take lifelong vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

"Because they take vows, it makes it more like a family, or like a marriage," said the Rev. Dan Ward, a Benedictine monk and lawyer - both civil and canonical - who advises the orders on legal issues. "Marriage vows are for better or for worse."

Also, unlike a diocesan priest, clergy in religious orders cannot accumulate income or property and have no pension, so they depend on their order for everything.

Unlike the bishops, who opened most of their conference sessions to the media, the major superiors closed their meeting to media and the public, opening only a few speeches to reporters and instead holding briefings to summarize discussions.

SNAP members criticized the religious superiors for not meeting with them, as the bishops did before their conference in June. The Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan priest who is CMSM president, said he and other representatives of religious orders heard SNAP in Dallas.

"We got the message. We believe we're on message," Connors said.

Keating said the purpose of this week's meetings was to "deal with issues of public accountability" so the decisions of religious orders "will be more transparent." But he defended the decision to keep the discussions closed, comparing the body to a "committee of the whole" that is seeing and discussing proposals for the first time.

Discussions this week will center on three broad areas: how to increase accountability, how to better reach out to victims of sexual abuse, and the creation of a lay review board similar to the national panel led by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (who is of no relation to the conference director). The body is expected to cast a final vote tomorrow.

Because of the independence of religious orders, which ultimately answer to the Vatican, anything adopted by the conference would be advisory and the participation of any order is voluntary.

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