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Dioceses oust priests they had vowed to monitor

Eight years after a plan to monitor U.S. Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse was approved, few of those programs exist. Church leaders are more likely to oust a cleric than monitor him.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At the peak of the Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis, the discipline plan American bishops adopted prompted dioceses to remove nearly all accused clergy from the priesthood.

Some of the men, however, were considered too old or sick to be kicked out. Instead, bishops barred those clerics from functioning as priests and promised to keep watch over them in supervisory programs that would keep the men far from children.

But interviews with canon lawyers, church child protection officials and experts who advise them found that, eight years after the plan was approved, few of those diocesan programs exist. Church leaders are more likely to oust a cleric from the priesthood than monitor him.

Church leaders viewed the tracking programs as critical to protecting children while still showing mercy for accused clergy who did not have the means to survive on their own.

Most people who said they were abused as children did not come forward until decades after the priests' alleged offenses. The men had never been prosecuted in a civil court, let alone a church tribunal. Vatican officials whose approval was needed to enact the 2002 American plan were especially concerned about clergy due process rights and pressed bishops on the issue.

When the American policy was finalized, an exception had been carved out for the infirm men. They would be ordered to live a life of "prayer and penance" under diocesan watch.

Dioceses quickly realized, though, that they had few resources for the complex task of monitoring abusive priests, and that by caring for the clergy, they might be opening themselves to additional liability. American dioceses have already paid more than $2.7 billion in settlements and other abuse-related costs since 1950, according to surveys by the bishops.

Tossing accused clerics out of the priesthood altogether became the more common approach.

"In many instances, it's a decision based on whether there is the probability of being able to provide the monitoring that's necessary," said Sister Sharon Euart, a canon lawyer who advises bishops and religious orders. If they can't, they may be more likely to begin the process of removing them from the priesthood, she said.

No one knows exactly how many accused clergy have been removed from the priesthood in the last several years, how many are living under church supervision or the specifics of how dioceses are tracking the men under their watch. Annual child safety audits for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops do not include a check of priest-monitoring programs.

A separate 2007 survey for the bishops found only a small number of dioceses operated residences where abusive clergy were supervised, according to Mary Jane Doerr of the bishops' Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection.

Monica Applewhite, a consultant who conducts abuse-prevention training and helps develop policies and monitoring programs for dioceses and religious orders, estimates just a few hundred accused clergy are now under supervision around the country.

"Some dioceses really have laicized everybody," she said.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said it should be no surprise that dioceses are struggling with the issue. The church is tackling a problem that broader society has yet to solve: how to keep sex offenders in check.

The accused priests are an especially difficult case. The men are under no obligation — legal or otherwise — to accept the bishops' terms. Some accused clergy leave the priesthood rather than live under the restrictions.

"There's no other organization that has this large of a community of people against whom there have been accusations where there has never been any adjudication," said Finkelhor, who researches child sex abuse and has advised the Archdiocese of Boston.

The situation in dioceses contrasts starkly to the approach in men's religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans and Friars, who generally live in contained communities and mostly operate independently of bishops.

When the U.S. religious orders adapted the bishops' 2002 discipline plan, the groups added detailed guidelines on supervision of priests barred from public church work.

The religious orders had a built-in advantage. Their clergy already lived together and had taken vows of obedience to their superiors when they joined the orders.

Diocesan priests are more independent. They generally live alone in parish rectories spread across a state, some with parochial grade schools attached or nearby.

Dioceses also have found they do not have the housing, resources or experience to properly supervise accused abusers. Church-run treatment facilities take in some of the clergy, with dioceses covering the costs.

Bishop Blase Cupich of the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D., said he sent a local accused priest to a treatment center in another region where the clergyman could be closely monitored and receive counseling. The rural Rapid City diocese covers an area the size of Pennsylvania.

"We did not have the capacity to monitor" the priest, who has since died, said Cupich, head of the bishops' national child-protection committee. "I know some smaller dioceses have used facilities like that."

Applewhite, a social worker, said most clergy who have been barred from church work but have accepted oversight from a dioceses or religious order would be considered low-risk by criminal justice standards, since most are elderly with offenses dating back decades.

The Archdiocese of Chicago is one of the few dioceses with a fully developed monitoring program. It was created in 2008 after a child safety review that was prompted by a mishandled abuse claim against a parish priest, the Rev. Daniel McCormack. He later pleaded guilty.

Eleven clergy are in the program, generally ranging in age from their 60s to 80s, but are not all housed together, according to Jan Slattery, the archdiocese child protection director.

Each has an individual safety plan based on his history, including mandatory participation in 12-step programs, managed by a counselor with a background in investigations. The archdiocese notifies local law enforcement about the men's presence in their area, while the clerics names are posted on the archdiocese website.

The archdiocese did lose one clergyman from the program after he consistently violated protocols, she said. He opted to leave the priesthood.

"They all understand what the consequences are," Slattery said.

Advocates for victims have questioned whether dioceses should even be in the business of supervising the men, considering bishops' poor track record on reining in predators. The U.S. bishops' toughened discipline plan and the millions of dollars they've spent on abuse prevention in dioceses, has restored some public trust. Yet, the molestation crisis now erupting in European churches continues to undermine confidence in how Catholic leaders deal with abuse.

In the United States, however, the church appears to be the only option, since no other institution would take responsibility for child molesters who have never been convicted.

"Once you throw them out," said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, former director of the Saint Luke Institute, a Catholic mental health center in Maryland, "you have no leverage."