State's top clerics praise abuse policy
Seattle Times staff reporter
DALLAS — As two top Roman Catholic clerics return to Seattle and Spokane from the national bishops' conference here, they do so praising the new policy for removing sexually abusive priests from active ministry, saying it protects children — even without a provision for forced defrocking of offenders.
The act of returning an abusive priest to a layman state and severing all ties with him — defrocking — is "not necessary" and does not hold to church teachings about the possibility of personal reform, said Archbishop Alex Brunett of Seattle. "When you (instead) remove someone from active ministry, they're also losing every facet or every area of identity with priesthood that they have."
Forbidding those priests from ever wearing clerical garb again, from ever saying Mass in public and from ever representing themselves as priests is punishment enough, he said.
He said the policy shows "absolute concern about protecting children and young people — that's very strong and articulated in there."
In light of the sex scandal that began spreading through the U.S. Catholic Church early this year, the bishops knew they "had to give a solid response" and they came up with one, passing the policy by a vote of 239 to 13 on Friday, said the Most Rev. William Skylstad, bishop of Spokane and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "They knew from back home what the lay people wanted, the anger of the victims."
For the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Diocese of Spokane — both of which already have relatively tough procedures in place for dealing with priests who molest or rape children — the new national policy will mean one big change and several smaller ones.
The policy, which needs Vatican approval, requires that in all 178 dioceses in the U.S., any priest or deacon who has ever sexually abused a minor even once will no longer be allowed to minister. That's more stringent than what's typically been done to date in other dioceses, including Seattle and Spokane.
The policy also calls for all dioceses to establish independent review boards, composed mainly of lay people, and to report all allegations of child sexual abuse to civil authorities — measures already in place in both Seattle and Spokane.
The policy does not, however, make it mandatory or easier to defrock abusive priests. Nor does it provide for sanctions against bishops who knowingly allow abusive priests to continue ministering — something victims and reformers had called for.
The practical differences between removing a priest from active ministry and defrocking him may sometimes be subtle to lay observers.
Catholics believe that when a priest is ordained, he undergoes an intrinsic change; being a priest is who he becomes, not just a job he does. Defrocking, which requires Vatican approval, returns the priest to a lay state.
A priest removed from active ministry but not defrocked is no longer allowed to wear clerical garb, say Mass in public or represent himself as a priest. But he does remain a priest and is usually supported in his basic needs by his diocese until he can become self-sufficient.
Even several bishops in Dallas said it's unclear exactly what a priest removed from ministry is allowed to continue doing. It was unclear even to some of them, for example, if such a priest could still be called "father."
Short of defrocking, "I think removing someone totally from ministry is kind of like a death sentence on their whole life and ministry," Brunett said. "Doing that is the worst possible thing you can do to anybody if you're a priest."
The process of forcibly laicizing a priest, or defrocking, would most likely involve a church trial and would be cumbersome and costly. "If I defrock someone, do I want to take valuable resources away from the poor and the needy and do that?" Brunett said.
Further, Catholic teaching places a strong emphasis on the power of reform. "Simply throwing someone out and saying you're gone is not what the church has ever been about," he said. "You don't want to destroy someone, you want to reform them."
The policy requirement that offending priests be permanently removed from ministry after one offense marks the biggest change for both Seattle and Spokane.
In the past, the Seattle Archdiocese's independent review panel, called the special-cases committee, has allowed some priests who have been found guilty of an "isolated incident" to resume ministry, Brunett said. "If we understand the charter, that will not be the case" from now on.
But little else will have to be done in Seattle to conform with the policy, he said.
"We in the Archdiocese of Seattle already have had in place a policy that is actually better than the policy they came up with (in Dallas)," said Brunett. "They didn't add anything to what we've already been doing for 15 years."
Brunett said his archdiocese also has checks and balances not required by the national policy, such as having a probation officer check up on priests who have abused, and doing forensic testing and evaluation of anyone who's been an offender.
One minor change
About the only thing the archdiocese would do differently immediately in light of the new policy, Brunett said, would be to recheck its files on priests and see if any "fall under the definition of this charter."
Those who do — in other words, those who are found to have had allegations of abuse of a minor in their records — would come before the archdiocese's special-cases committee. The committee then would make a recommendation as to whether removal from ministry was called for.
Brunett doesn't expect there to be many — if any — priests who would have to be removed under the new policy.
In the Spokane Diocese — which also has had many of the requirements in the new policy in place for more than a decade — Skylstad said he would expand the current special-cases committee from five people to about eight and have it meet on a more regular basis. The committee has met about once or twice in the last year and a half.
Skylstad also wants his diocese to come up with ways to better minister to victims and to hold open discussions both within the priesthood and with the lay community on issues such as abuse and intimacy.
On the issue of sanctions against bishops, Skylstad said that in closed executive sessions during the meeting last week, some bishops expressed strong support for more systems of accountability for bishops, as well as priests.
The policy also creates a national review panel that would audit every diocese to see if the bishops are complying with the new standards. Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a Catholic, was chosen to chair the panel. He has said he would ask the pope to remove bishops who are found to have covered up cases of child sexual abuse.
Given the wide margin by which the policy passed, Skylstad said he expects the Vatican to act quickly — approving it within the month.
The 239-13 vote, he said, was "a powerful endorsement of the document. I think there's such solidarity amongst bishops."
Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.