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Thursday, November 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bishops clear new sex-abuse policy

Seattle Times staff reporter

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly yesterday to pass a revised policy to protect minors from sexually abusive priests, Archbishop Alex Brunett of Seattle and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane said they would quickly try to set up a regional church-trial system for accused priests.

Brunett said at least four priests in the Seattle Archdiocese likely would be eligible for such trials.

Church trials, or tribunals, are one of the most controversial aspects of the policy, a revision of a charter passed in June by U.S. bishops in Dallas. The Dallas charter would have allowed bishops to remove a priest from ministry on the strength of a single credible accusation, without a trial.

The revised policy was drafted by four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials after the Vatican said the Dallas charter conflicted too much with church law.

Under the revised policy, priests who face credible abuse accusations would be eligible for church trials before they could be permanently removed from ministry. Such trials typically are judged by priests behind closed doors.

In the Seattle Archdiocese, priests who likely would be eligible for trials if they chose include:

• The Rev. David Jaeger of Seattle, currently on administrative leave, who admitted to molesting at least one boy decades ago at a summer camp. Jaeger later received treatment, and psychologists do not consider him dangerous to minors. Efforts to reach him yesterday were unsuccessful, but he has said he would be interested in such a trial.

• The Rev. Barry Ashwell, a Pierce County priest placed on administrative leave last year after a lawsuit filed in Clark County accused him of sexual abuse in the 1970s. He also had a previous claim against him of long-ago abuse. He has denied both.

• The Revs. John Cornelius of Seattle and Everett, and Dennis Champagne of Lakewood, Pierce County, both of whom resigned earlier this year — Cornelius after multiple accusations of long-sexual abuse of minors surfaced this year, and Champagne after a single 1986 accusation resurfaced this year.

Champagne asked that his resignation be rescinded a few weeks after he tendered it, saying he had resigned under duress, Brunett said yesterday. Brunett said the request was granted and that Champagne is now on administrative leave.

Cornelius' attorney, Anne Bremner of Seattle, said yesterday she and Cornelius would study all options. Cornelius was "heartened by the shift in focus that there are more safeguards for priests' rights" under the revised policy, she said.

In Spokane, where recent allegations of long-ago abuse have stunned the Catholic community, Skylstad said he knows of no active priests in the diocese who would face a church trial. But the diocese is facing at least two lawsuits representing about a dozen people who accused the Rev. Patrick O'Donnell, a former priest, of abusing them years ago.

Upset with Skylstad

The recently revealed allegations have upset some Spokane Catholics, who have accused Skylstad, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of minimizing the extent of the crisis in Spokane after scandals in Boston caught national attention in January.

Since then, some 300 of the nation's 46,000 priests have resigned or been removed.

The revised policy, which passed in a 246-to-7 vote, with six abstentions, is expected to get Vatican approval soon. Once it's approved, the policy will be in effect for two years, after which the U.S. bishops will review it.

U.S. bishops have yet to decide how the policy's tribunals are to be structured and operated. Brunett said that, rather than a national tribunal system, he favors either a statewide system or a regional one for Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

"I feel we're capable of doing a better job," said Brunett. "The East Coast hasn't shown an ability to handle these cases well."

Victims and some lay Catholics have derided the prospect of trials. They would be "so secretive that I would have no idea if bishops were following the policy," said Peter Isely, a board member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "How do you check? How do you know?"

The Seattle Archdiocese — which for years has had lay review boards, and other provisions in its policy for dealing with sexually abusive priests — has been relatively less troubled than some East Coast dioceses since the Boston scandal. Still, it's currently facing at least seven lawsuits representing 23 victims.

Yesterday, Brunett revealed the number of complaints to the archdiocese accusing priests of abuse of a minor. Since 1962, 839 priests have served in the archdiocese. Of those, 34 have been accused of any sort of abuse of a minor, he said. Some of the accused have died, others were defrocked, some disappeared and others returned to the "religious communities from which they came," Brunett said.

Brunett would not disclose the amount of money the archdiocese has spent in settlements, saying "I don't want to encourage the trial lawyers," and that such numbers were irrelevant to understanding the causes and solutions of the crisis.

In any event, he said, settlement money came from the church's insurance policies, not parishioners' contributions.

Brunett said he probably would add more lay experts to the archdiocese's lay review committee that considers sexual-abuse cases. That committee's role, he said, always has been advisory. But he takes the advice seriously, he said, and has never disagreed with the panel's recommendations.

"I wouldn't have an advisory committee if I would disagree with them."

Skylstad said he may also add members to his lay review board.

Brunett and Skylstad said they know of no priests in active ministry in their respective dioceses who have a sexual-abuse-of-a-minor complaint lodged against them.

Bishops this week repeatedly emphasized that the revised policy would still uphold the zero-tolerance goal of the Dallas charter. They said the compromises with the Vatican changed only the procedures to reach that goal, adding the force of church law.

The revised policy still has language from the Dallas charter, stating that any priest or deacon who has ever admitted or been found to have committed "even a single act of sexual abuse" would be permanently removed from ministry and perhaps even defrocked in "exceptional cases." Only now, they would be eligible for a church trial.

"What we passed today has strengthened very much and clarified what we passed in June," Skylstad said.

Other key changes:

• Unlike the Dallas policy, the revised one would apply to the nation's 16,000 priests in religious orders, such as Jesuits and Redemptorists, and to priests in the Eastern Catholic churches, such as Maronite and Melkite.

Such orders and churches would still need to determine how the policy would mesh with their own church laws.

• The revised norms would follow church law, which says victims must file a complaint by age 28. But in cases that exceed this statute of limitations, bishops would be required to ask the Vatican to consider a waiver. The Dallas charter had no statute of limitations.

• The revised policy makes clear that the role of lay review boards, which are to be composed of at least five Catholics, would be advisory, not binding.

• The Dallas policy called for any priest against whom a credible allegation was made to be immediately suspended from ministry, even before a preliminary investigation. The revised policy allows such suspension only after a preliminary investigation, "in harmony with canon law," has uncovered "sufficient evidence."

Critics say policy weakened

After details of the revised policy were released last week, victims and some lay Catholics criticized it, saying it would give the bishops too much discretionary power. They said it waters down the role of lay review boards, creates too many hurdles before justice can be done, and perpetuates a culture of secrecy that led to the crisis in the first place.

At least one bishop — James Moynihan of Syracuse, N.Y. — said, "The work done in Rome has really changed the way in which we regard the charter." There has been little discussion, he said, of how tribunals would be set up, the amount of work they would require or how much delay would result.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Moynihan said. "I think we're buying a tremendous can of worms. We have no idea what's going to be involved in all of it."

Some victims, though, said it was a step in the right direction.

"If the church has a policy that will at least be able to investigate these situations and really examine what has gone on, that's a heck of a lot better than nothing," said Patrick Hoch of Oregon, one of about a dozen men who alleged Cornelius molested them years ago. "It's important that the church has to take accountability and responsibility, no matter how long ago it was."

Many said the real test will come in the next few months and years, as the bishops implement the policy, pending Vatican approval. "That's the key — how it's implemented," said the Rev. Stephen Sundborg, a Jesuit and president of Seattle University. He said the revised policy brings good balance in preserving the protection of children and due process for accused priests.

The bishops have provided structures — such as a national review board headed by outgoing Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating — that would monitor and report on how well the dioceses are implementing the charter, Sundborg said. "I think it's a good result."

Steve Krueger, interim executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based lay group formed in reaction to the sex-abuse scandal, said Catholics have to pay close attention to implementation of the policy. "In every diocese across the country, Catholics have to hold their bishops accountable."

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