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Catholics Question Gray Areas of Abuse

Critics Say Some Priests' Misconduct Goes Unpunished Under New Guidelines

Nov 30, 2002 | Washington Post Despite their recent recommitment to a zero-tolerance policy toward child sexual abuse, some Roman Catholic bishops across the country are failing to punish priests whose sexual misconduct falls into various gray areas, according to victims' groups, plaintiffs' lawyers and lay Catholic activists.

In the diocese of Paterson, N.J., for example, Bishop Frank Rodimer last week restored a suspended priest to active ministry after a review board of five lay Catholics and three clergymen concluded that the priest's behavior was "inappropriate" but "did not meet the definition of sex abuse" adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas in June and modified in Washington two weeks ago.

The alleged victim told the board that the priest touched his genitals in bed at the priest's private home in the early 1970s, according to the victim's lawyer.

"Granted, my client had his underwear on at the time, so the touching was on top of a thin layer of clothing," said the lawyer, Gregory G. Gianforcaro. "But it's incredible to me that they decided it was merely 'inappropriate.' "

Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for the diocese, said the review board would not comment on its confidential deliberations. "All I can tell you is that the board voted unanimously, seven to zero with one priest abstaining, that the events described did not meet the definition of child sexual abuse" adopted by the bishops' conference, she said.

That definition, as amended this month, says sexual abuse is "an external, objective grave violation" and specifically notes that it does not need to involve force or physical contact.

Because the review board has not explained its reasoning, it is unclear whether its members did not find the victim's testimony credible, believed the touching was inadvertent or concluded that there was some other mitigating circumstance. Gianforcaro said his client, who was in his early teens at the time of the alleged abuse, has not filed a lawsuit seeking damages but is "in a dialogue" with the diocese over possible compensation.

Mark V. Serrano, a leader of the 4,300-member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the New Jersey case illustrates that what victims' groups feared might happen is, indeed, happening around the country.

"There is a whole host of priests who are not notorious serial offenders; they're in the gray areas. They're one-time offenders or people accused of lewd and lascivious conduct, and they're going to be put back in ministry," Serrano said.

Leaders of the bishops' conference have said repeatedly that the zero-tolerance policy they adopted in Dallas remains intact, despite some changes made at the behest of the Vatican to ensure due process for accused priests.

"The promise we made in Dallas was that no priest who has ever abused a minor will remain in ministry, and we're sticking to that," said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who helped draft the Dallas policy and the Vatican-approved revisions.

Under the policy, when a diocese receives a complaint of sexual abuse, the bishop must "promptly" initiate a preliminary investigation. If the investigation finds "sufficient evidence" of abuse, the accused priest is supposed to be placed on temporary leave pending a full investigation and, if necessary, a trial by an internal church tribunal.

The Detroit Free Press reported Thursday that Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida has allowed a pastor to continue serving in a parish despite allegations against him by two women who say he molested them as teenagers in the 1950s and '60s. The first victim came forward five months ago, and the second came forward two months ago, the newspaper said, citing documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Macomb County Prosecutor's office.

Monsignor Walter Hurley, who oversees the response to sex abuse allegations for the Detroit archdiocese, said yesterday that the archdiocese is not certain the two allegations are about the same priest. The issue, he said, is what constitutes "sufficient evidence" that abuse has occurred.

"We have a record of removing priests from the ministry when we have a basis to proceed, but this is an unusual case for us," Hurley said. "We're not certain of the identity of the priest in the second allegation and the priest who was accused in the first place has a long record of faithful service. That's not to say that something may not have happened, but we just need to be careful."

In Milwaukee this week, lay Catholics protested the archdiocese's plan to give a temporary parish assignment to a priest who has repeatedly been charged by police with indecent acts, including a 1989 arrest for engaging in sexual activity with a 34-year-old truck driver and a 1999 charge of "prostitution-masturbation" for which the priest paid a $1,000 fine.

"This priest's continued work in the church is a scandal to the faithful, and it should be a source of discomfort to the hierarchy," said Albert P. Szews, president of the Milwaukee chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, one of the lay groups objecting to the priest's reassignment.

Jerry Topczewski, spokesman for the archdiocese of Milwaukee, noted that none of the charges has involved a minor. "I'm not saying it doesn't matter. I'm just saying he's never been accused of sexual abuse of a minor, and the charter that was adopted in Dallas and modified in Washington deals only with minors," he said.

Topczewski added that the priest has been serving as a liaison to retired, sick and elderly priests. His return to regular parish work was approved by a panel of fellow priests last summer but was "prematurely" disclosed in a parish newsletter this month, the spokesman said.

"It was published in the bulletin, but it was never finalized. He was never there, and he's not going there," Topczewski said.

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