Signs of the Times

177 Priests Resigned or Removed From Ministry Since January

The Associated Press reported that at least 177 priests have resigned or been removed from their posts across the country since the scandal over sexual abuse of minors by priests erupted in Boston in January. Meanwhile, many prosecutors are taking a more aggressive approach. The San Francisco County district attorney has asked the San Francisco Archdiocese for complete records on all allegations of clergy sex abuse of minors for the past 75 years. Only the extremely long time period distinguished that demand from similar ones being made by a number of prosecutors across the country in recent weeks.

In Ohio, for example, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati turned over five boxes of subpoenaed documents on sex abuse allegations to the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office this spring, and the archdiocesan chancellor, the Rev. Christopher Armstrong, was summoned to testify before a grand jury on April 18. In late April a church-state dispute over additional documents, withheld by the archdiocese on grounds of attorney-client privilege or clergy confidentiality, appeared likely to end up in court. In Dayton, which is also in the Cincinnati Archdiocese, another grand jury on April 23 ordered the archdiocese to turn over relevant documents on priests who served in that area. As Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland prepared to respond to a similar grand jury subpoena in early April, he removed 11 active priests from their posts because of allegations of sexual abuse and released the names of 12 retired and former priests removed previously because of such allegations.


The new atmosphere can be traced back to Boston, where in January, under heavy pressure from state and county prosecutors, Cardinal Bernard F. Law ordered archdiocesan officials to turn over the names of all priests with child abuse allegations in their files. By early February more than 80 names of priests had been given to local district attorneys, but by the end of the month Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and five local prosecutors threatened to convene a grand jury and subpoena files if the archdiocese did not provide more information on the allegations against the priests. The archdiocese waived its claims of confidentiality and turned over thousands of pages of previously withheld documents. Officials of the other three dioceses in Massachusetts also met with prosecutors and agreed to hand over file information on past allegations against priests or other employees.

The Diocese of Portland, Me., also had agreed to provide a local district attorney with its files on abuse allegations against any living priest or ex-priest of the diocese. In neighboring New Hampshire, the Diocese of Manchester gave to prosecutorsand publicly releasedthe names of all priests and ex-priests who had faced a credible allegation. The Diocese of Burlington agreed in March to give sex abuse files over the past 20 years to Vermont’s attorney general.

In March, after newspaper articles raised questions about New York’s Cardinal Edward M. Egan’s handling of sex abuse cases when he was bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called on the Archdiocese of New York to hand over its records on any accused priests. The archdiocese initially resisted but later agreed to turn over relevant records.

The neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn, which then followed suit, gave local district attorneys the names of 36 priests accused within the past 20 years. Brooklyn’s Bishop Thomas V. Daily and Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes have signed a memorandum of understanding in which the diocese agrees to report any allegation of sexual abuse of minor children by a priest to the district attorney’s office immediately, without prior screening regarding the truth of the allegations.

Elsewhere in New York State, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office subpoenaed records of the Rockville Centre Diocese and announced plans to empanel a special grand jury solely to investigate what sex abuse allegations were made there and how the diocese handled them. The Nassau County district attorney also subpoenaed diocesan records.

While grand jury inquiries and subpoenas of diocesan documents made headlines, in most places church and law enforcement officials cooperated more quietly, meeting to discuss issues and see if there were difficulties in policy or practice that needed to be resolved. In Delaware, for example, Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington and Attorney General M. Jane Brady met on April 9 to exchange information and discuss future cooperation. Brady said the bishop gave her five names of priests with allegations in their files, all of them no longer in active ministry, and she gave him information on allegations her office had received against six other priests. Brady said most alleged incidents discussed at the meeting occurred before July 1987 and therefore prosecution is banned by the [Delaware] statute of limitations.

Although the time clock for prosecuting child abuse crimes varies from state to state, nearly all the cases of clergy sexual abuse being discussed across the country involve crimes that can no longer be prosecuted.

Even where prosecutors expressed satisfaction with existing diocesan practices and took no new initiatives to press for information, many bishops offered to disclose more information to them. Diocesan attorney James Sweeney of Sacramento, Calif., said he would provide prosecutors throughout the 20-county northern California diocese with whatever information they need on abuse allegations against clergy or diocesan employees.

Bishop William G. Curlin of Charlotte, N.C., announced a reporting policy change, saying the diocese now will report any new child sex abuse allegation immediately to civil authorities instead of first investigating and evaluating whether the allegation is credible. In an interview with The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times on April 22, Bishop Robert N. Lynch said he has changed his mind about how the church investigates abuse claims and now he would urge anyone with an allegation to go to the police first and then come to the church. The time for the church to investigate quietly without outside scrutiny is over, he said. We can’t do that anymore.... We were just getting hammered with You’re hiding stuff’ and You’re withholding stuff.’

The Diocese of Erie, Pa., asked Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk to review its handling of allegations of child sexual abuse by less than a dozen priests over the past 40 years. A joint statement by the diocese and the district attorney said the diocese had followed its stated policy in child sexual abuse cases, and responded in a timely, responsible and appropriate fashion to these allegations. The allegations stem from incidents that occurred 20, 30 and 40 years ago, placing them beyond the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, Foulk said. All of the priests about whom allegations were made are out of the diocese, deceased or not in a position where they pose a risk or threat to children, the district attorney added.

Wayne County Prosecutor Michael E. Duggan praised the cooperation given by officials of the Archdiocese of Detroit in reaching what he called the nation’s most comprehensive agreement on providing information on clergy sex abuse complaints. The Archdiocese of Detroit has been fully cooperative from Day 1 with everything we have done, Duggan said.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn said the bishops of the 10 dioceses in the St. Paul-Minneapolis province, which covers Minnesota and the Dakotas, agreed to create an outside auditing process to assess each diocese’s handling of sex abuse issues.

Vatican Shift on Expulsion of Sex Abusers

At the U.S.-Vatican summit meeting on sex abuse (April 23-24), the U.S. bishops received approval for a new mechanism for removing offenders from the priesthood. This represents an apparent shift in Vatican thinking. In the mid-1990’s, U.S. bishops petitioned for an administrative shortcut for defrocking clerical sex abusers, but the Vatican turned it down, saying it infringed on the priest’s right to due process. Now the Vatican appears willing to accept a compromise: a special process that would allow bishops to act quickly against abusive priests, but still offers priests a chance to defend themselves and appeal any sanctions.

The word special’ was carefully chosen. It won’t be as cumbersome as a full-blown judicial process, but it will have more guarantees built into it than a simple administrative act, said Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago. The formula has yet to be spelled out, but Cardinal George said he believes the special process will be very close to what U.S. church leaders proposed in the 1990’s, and he said the Vatican side now has accepted it in principle. Pope John Paul II ultimately would have to approve it as an addition to church law.

The U.S. church leaders actually will be looking at two applications of the special process for laicizing priests. One will be very speedy, when the bishop has to act quickly against a notorious serial abuser of minors. The other will be a little more controlled and less rapid, to be used when there is no clear threat of repeated abuse by the priest, Cardinal George said.

News Briefs

The Vatican announced the imminent release of a papal decree on the sacrament of penance that was expected to address the use of general absolution. Sources said the document may limit bishops’ discretion to decide under what circumstances general absolution may be given.

The vicar general of Boston, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, faxed to all priests a letter opposing a proposed archdiocesewide association of parish council members as superfluous and potentially divisive.

As Malawians face their most serious famine in more than 50 years, the country’s bishops have criticized the government for allowing corruption to increase while cracking down on democratic liberties.

A report linking oil development in the western Upper Nile region of Sudan to mass displacements of civilians, bombings and burning of civilian homes has been released by the international humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders. Canadian churches and nongovernmental organizations have repeatedly called on the Talisman oil company to pull out of the region.

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