Signs of the Times

Debate Expected on Exception for One-Time Priest-Abusers

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis told journalists on June 4 that a proposal to allow possible return to limited ministry for some priests who have sexually abused a minor only once in the past “is going to be hotly debated” when the U.S. bishops meet in Dallas, Tex., on June 13-15 to adopt a national policy on sexual abuse by clergy. Without saying so directly, he indicated there is likely to be a strong consensus among the bishops for a general policy of laicizing virtually all priests who abuse minors—anybody guilty of more than one offense in the past and anyone with even one offense in the future.

“Our foremost goal is to protect children and young people. One essential way to do that is to say clearly, ‘If you abuse, you are out of the priesthood,’” he said. The debate among the bishops, he said, is going to center on a proposal to allow a narrow exception for some priests with a past record blemished by only one offense. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in a letter to the people of Los Angeles, said he will work to strengthen the draft by eliminating any exception to the zero tolerance rule.


Archbishop Flynn, head of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, briefed national media in Washington as the draft “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” drawn up by his committee was made public, just nine days before the bishops were to begin debate in Dallas. The charter would require dioceses to establish mostly lay review committees to assess all abuse allegations. It would require them to report any accusations to civil authorities if the victim is still a minor when the allegation surfaces. It would form national structures to help dioceses implement the policy and to report annually on the quality of their compliance.

Also to be debated and voted on is a proposed set of legislative norms that, if adopted by the bishops and subsequently approved by the Holy See, would give key elements of the charter the force of church law in the United States.

The charter specifies, for example, that a diocesan review board is to be made up mostly of lay people not in the employ of the diocese and spells out the board’s tasks and relation to the bishop. The legislative norms specify that it is to be composed of at least five persons, the majority lay and not employed by the diocese, and should include at least one priest and at least one person with special expertise about sexual abuse of children. The norms also specify that board members are to be appointed to five-year terms, which are renewable.

On the contentious issue of making exceptions to the laicization requirement for certain priests with single past offenses, Archbishop Flynn stressed that it will be up to the bishops in Dallas to determine whether that proposal is adopted or rejected. “The committee is well aware that many strongly believe that there should be no such provision,” he said. “However, in the feedback that we received, there appeared to be a large enough minority of bishops, expert observers and people in the pew who wanted some flexibility, that we felt this possibility had to go to the full body.”

He stressed that as proposed in the draft, the exception “can only apply to a cleric who has had treatment, has not been diagnosed as a pedophile and has had only a single act of abuse in his past.”

In addition, he said, “The diocesan review board would have to make an evaluation and recommendation to the bishop, and the victim/survivor would have to contribute to that evaluation. A cleric who was retained in ministry would have to have his situation disclosed to those with whom he would live or serve. However, ministry that involves contact with children or young people would always be out of the question.”

The archbishop described the proposed formation of a national Office for Child and Youth Protection at the bishops’ national headquarters and of a national review board as “means of accountability” that mark “a large step forward from what we did during the last decade.”

“We established good principles then [in 1992],” he said, “but we didn’t provide for a way to be accountable to our people and to one another nationally for what is so clearly a national—even international—problem.”

Besides mandating reporting to civil authorities if the victim is still a minor, the proposal calls for full cooperation with authorities on reporting in cases where the victim is no longer a minor. It says dioceses in all cases will “advise and support a person’s right to make a report to proper authorities.”

Many of the media’s questions to Archbishop Flynn revealed skepticism about the characterization of provisions of the charter as mandatory, when there are no specific enforcement procedures or sanctions forcing a bishop to implement them.

“This charter is going to demand an enormous amount of accountability on the part of every single bishop,” he said. Referring to the proposal for public yearly national reports on compliance in each diocese, he predicted that “public disclosure would be sanction enough” to bring bishops into compliance. “I can’t imagine any bishop, for legal or other reasons, saying ‘I’m not going to follow that,’” he said.

Although the charter contains no definition of sexual abuse, he said that the diocesan review boards, which would include professionals like attorneys, doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, would be competent to “determine what is or is not sexual abuse” in their assessment of specific cases.

Archbishop Weakland Makes Public Apology for ‘My Sinfulness’

Wearing a simple white alb, crimson zucchetto, his favorite pectoral cross and a purple stole of penance, former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland used carefully chosen words and visible acts of contrition in a public apology during a prayer service in a chapel at the archdiocesan center on May 31. During a seven-minute homily delivered in somber, sometimes faltering tones, Archbishop Weakland apologized five times. Once he finished speaking, the clearly grief-stricken gathering of 400 rose in sustained applause, as their former archbishop knelt before them, shoulders hunched, hands shaking. Acknowledging that there can be “no healing” for the church and the Catholic community “unless it is based on truth,” Archbishop Weakland began by saying: “I come before you today to apologize and beg forgiveness.... I apologize to all the faithful of this archdiocese which I love so much, to all its people and clergy, for the scandal that has occurred because of my sinfulness.”

The archbishop also apologized “for any harm done” to Paul Marcoux. On May 23, Marcoux made public accusations of sexual abuse by Archbishop Weakland in the late 1970’s, while Marcoux was in his early 30’s attending graduate courses at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. Marcoux said he was paid $450,000 by the Milwaukee Archdiocese in 1997 to remain quiet about the abuse, and produced a letter written to him in 1980 in which Archbishop Weakland discussed the “pain of deep love” in their relationship. In a public statement issued on the day Marcoux’s allegations broke, Archbishop Weakland denied Marcoux’s claim, saying he had “never abused anyone.”

Archbishop Weakland also said he had erred in his assertion, made in his first public statement about the settlement, that his earnings during 25 years as archbishop from writing, speeches and other honoraria “far exceed any settlement amount.” In a statement released after the service, the archdiocese said the stipends, honorariums and gifts it has received because of Archbishop Weakland’s work total $148,928.82. To make restitution, Archbishop Weakland pledged in his “remaining years” to “contribute to the archdiocese whatever I can, and of course, the archdiocese will receive whatever effects I own on my death.”

News Briefs

• America won first place award for best editorial from the Catholic Press Association for its editorial “Due Process in the Church,” published on April 9, 2001. It also won first place for best special issue for the “War and Peace” issue of Oct. 8, 2001.

• The National Catholic Reporter, based in Kansas City, Mo., won the general excellence award for the third year in a row in the Catholic Press Association judging for national newspapers.

• Instead of ending, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” the new version of the Lord’s Prayer approved by the Italian bishops is the Italian equivalent of “Do not abandon us to temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

• “We condemn murder, corruption, injustice, theft, and the pillage of our national heritage,” wrote the bishops of Guatemala in a pastoral letter. “We cannot be silent when confronted by injustice and the abuse of the innocent.”

• Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Antioch said on a visit to New York that it was better to “build peace” than to “fight against terrorism.”

• Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., who has been president of Fordham University in New York since 1984, will retire from the post on June 30, 2003, the end of the next academic year. He was editor in chief of America from 1975 to 1984.

• The treaty signed on May 24 by U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin represents one of several steps needed to attain the goal of a “mutual, verifiable global ban on nuclear weapons,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

• South African church officials have criticized the presidential pardon of prisoners who had been refused amnesty by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

• The future of Catholic hospitals is threatened by efforts to end their access to public funds unless they provide services such as contraception and abortion, according to Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn. He said Planned Parenthood and other organizations promoting reproductive services were working for state legislation requiring provision of these services by hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid.

• Polish director Roman Polanski’s new film, “The Pianist,” which won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, is a secular work of art with “fundamental religious elements,” said a Polish bishop. In 1977 Polanski fled from the United States to Paris after being arrested for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl.

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