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Sunday, June 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some call priests' removal too harsh

Seattle Times staff reporter

When the nation's Roman Catholic bishops passed a policy this month to remove from ministry any priest or deacon who had sexually abused a minor even once, many lay Catholics at the time thought it wasn't tough enough.

But now that clergy around the country are starting to be removed, some Catholics are wondering if what they thought they wanted isn't too harsh and simplistic.

As some popular priests find themselves facing removal, their parishioners and colleagues are wrestling with the realization that the policy may essentially end the careers of some priests they have grown to love and respect.

Here in the Seattle area, some Catholics are rethinking the issue following the news that the Very Rev. David Jaeger may be removed from ministry because he admitted years ago to inappropriately touching eight to 10 minors during two incidents in the 1970s. Some supporters are even calling and writing the Archdiocese of Seattle offering their good opinion of Jaeger.

Jaeger, 58, has said that he "accept(s) responsibility for harming a minor," adding that he has not had any inappropriate contact with youths since 1978, does not consider himself a threat to minors, and he hopes to continue working as a priest.

Jaeger, who in the past has served as Catholic Youth Organization director and director of seminarians, is currently in an administrative job in the archdiocese.

As some victims and lay Catholics say the policy is exactly what's needed, or doesn't go far enough, some of Jaeger's supporters say it fails to differentiate degrees of abuse and doesn't distinguish between someone who is likely to reoffend and someone who has been rehabilitated and presumably no longer poses a threat.

The Rev. Robert Camuso, pastor of St. Anne church on Queen Anne Hill, where Jaeger substituted as pastor while Camuso was on a sabbatical two years ago, summed it up succinctly during a homily he gave recently: "I am torn between my care for Father David as a friend and my support for the bishops' policy."

Exercising the policy

Across the country, dioceses are starting to implement the policy as they await final approval from the Vatican that would make it mandatory and binding. Reactions from parishioners have been emotional.

At St. Mary of the Lake church in New Buffalo, Mich., parishioners wept when they learned their pastor, who had admitted to sexual misconduct with a teenage altar boy in the 1970s, would likely be barred from ministry.

Some parishioners were stunned when three priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit were removed under the church's new policy — one for sexual misconduct in the 1960s.

Parishioners at Chicago's Holy Angels church, where their pastor had allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with two adolescents at another parish in the 1970s, wore ribbons and buttons in support. Five of eight priests that the Archdiocese of Chicago said it would remove, following the bishops' conference, have said they would appeal.

About 70 people picketed the Archdiocese of Baltimore, calling for reinstatement of a pastor who was asked to resign after he informed officials he had hired someone whom he knew had been convicted of child sexual abuse.

Supporters speak out

In Seattle, Jaeger's supporters cite his good deeds in reaching out to the poor and sick, to gays and lesbians and to those with AIDS.

He is "one of the best priests in the Archdiocese of Seattle," said the Rev. William Heric, vicar at Holy Innocents Catholic Church in Duvall, who has known Jaeger for 21 years.

"To give his public ministry now a death sentence is tragic and unjust, especially when bishops guilty of covering up the crimes of serial abusers continue to remain in their ministries," Heric said. "If ever there was a case that warranted careful jurisprudence and an exception to the rule, Father Jaeger's is the one."

For Ken Orth, 56, who has been a member of St. Anne for seven years, the case has made him rethink his support of the bishops' policy.

"Even though we were strong advocates for the 'zero-tolerance policy' idea, we now see some of its significant, undesirable and even unfair downsides," Orth and his wife, Janice, wrote in a letter to Archbishop Alex Brunett.

When the charter first passed, it "seemed to have come out the way I wanted it" regarding abusive priests, Orth said in an interview. "I definitely supported 'One strike, you're out.' "

Now, Orth thinks the policy needs to have "common sense. It seems to sweep all this stuff up into one thing. There's no gray area in between on the severity of anything."

Some of Jaeger's defenders, like Lin Holley, 52, who has known the priest for about nine years, says the policy should have some allowance for those like Jaeger who went "over a boundary. He was counseled. He corrected himself. From then on, he's got a clean slate."

Holley thinks that what Jaeger admitted — massaging the back, shoulders, buttocks and legs of a boy — was "not sexual touching, it was not genital touching. When I have massages, that's where I get massaged, too."

'Violation is a violation'

That reaction, though, angers some sexual-abuse survivors.

"It doesn't benefit victims to create this large gray area," said Mark Serrano, a board member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Serrano, of Leesburg, Va., says a priest abused him from ages 9 to 16.

"Violation is a violation," he said. Inappropriate touching, when it comes from the "hands of a priest who we were taught was the connection to God — that is violation enough to cause severe damage for the rest of one's life. ... This is not something that should be dismissed. In any other profession, I think it's likely that person would be removed."

Tammi Bragg-Serrato, 36, who was raised Catholic and says she was sexually abused by a relative, believes that victims are often overlooked in the rush to defend accused priests. People lack knowledge about the symptoms and effects of childhood sexual abuse, she said.

"If more people were aware of the lifelong effects of sexual abuse, they might not be so tolerant," said Bragg-Serrato, of Port Hadlock, Jefferson County. Even one incident of inappropriate touching could cause lasting harm because it's often a terrifying experience for a child, she believes. "There should be zero tolerance, no questions asked."

The man who came forward with the accusation against Jaeger in 1988, with whom the archdiocese reached a settlement, could not be located for this story. The archdiocese would not release his name, citing a confidentiality agreement and respect for the victim's privacy.

Focus on the victims

Auxiliary Bishop George Thomas says that one of the Seattle Archdiocese's main concerns is "not losing sight of the impact that past misbehaviors of priests have on victims. Their pain is real. Their sadness is real. Their need for pastoral care is real. We hope to respond sensitively to them as well."

The archdiocese's special-cases committee is not expected to review Jaeger's case until autumn.

In the meantime, parishioners struggle to reconcile the requirements of the new policy, the need to protect children, the damage caused to victims of priestly abuse, the church's teachings on forgiveness, and their own feelings about priests they know personally who might be removed.

"It's very hard," said Judy Killion, 62, a member of St. Anne for some 50 years. "The thought of a priest or someone with that kind of sway over young people exploiting that is just despicable."

On the other hand, she said, when "someone did something in their youth, for a very finite number of times, was discovered, had treatment, never worked in ministry with children again — that seems to be the perfect case for not having 'one strike, you're out.'

"There's nothing black and white about this whole thing."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

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