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Church Struggles With Long-Ago Abuse Charges

Apr 4, 2002 | Seattle Times

A Pierce County priest accused of sexual abuse dating to the 1970s was never suspended from his duties, never given a psychiatric evaluation, and his current and former parishes were never informed of the allegation.

That's because the Archdiocese of Seattle couldn't prove the claim. Now that same priest is at the center of a Clark County lawsuit filed by another alleged victim who says he was sexually abused more than two decades ago when the priest was at a Vancouver parish.

The case, filed in September, illustrates the challenges — and risks — the church faces when dealing with abuses alleged to have taken place years ago.

The archdiocese enacted strict reforms in 1989 for dealing with allegations of recent abuse, which includes calling in police to investigate. But claims of decades-old abuse are substantially harder to prove, and the church must do so without the help of police because the statute of limitations would have expired.

Instead, the church is forced into a delicate balancing act — weighing hard-to-prove claims of the victim, the rights of the priest and the safety of the community.

The issue is critical because most victims don't come forward for years.

"If you have a current case against a priest who might have abused children, it's fairly straightforward," said Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress.

"But when it's a case that's past the statute of limitations, you can't use law enforcement, so what steps and procedures should the church take?"

The adult plaintiff in the Clark County case, a former altar boy listed in the suit only as "M.H.," says he was sexually abused as a child by the priest at a Vancouver parish over five years in the 1970s.

A similar allegation of long-ago abuse had been made against the same priest five years ago by another man. An independent investigator hired by the archdiocese came back with a report of "inconclusive" in that case, said archdiocese spokesman Bill Gallant.

In the absence of a conclusive finding, the archdiocese never called for a psychiatric evaluation, suspended the priest's duties or informed his parishes of the allegation.

"We must weigh both sides, and if we err, we must err on the side of the victim. But we also have an obligation to due process and fairness," Gallant said.

"Once again, there was no corroborating evidence. Is he to be marked forever because of an allegation?"

The 59-year-old priest, who has denied both allegations, is currently at a Pierce County parish. He has been placed on administrative leave while the archdiocese investigates the current claim in the lawsuit, Gallant said.

Berliner, who helped draft the archdiocese's reforms, says that when someone makes an accusation of sexual abuse or rape, chances are it's true. "But it's not always true, and there is an obligation to be fair."

At the very least, she said, the priest should be examined by a psychiatrist to determine the risks.

"I think it's an obligation on the part of the institution, particularly if it relates to someone in a position of trust or authority, because the consequences are so dire," Berliner said.

The stakes are high because sexual offenders whose victims were male or outside the family are at higher risk of reoffending, Berliner said.

In Washington law, the statute of limitations on sex-related crimes generally ranges between three and seven years, said Dan Donohoe of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. When the archdiocese receives a complaint falling within that time, the reforms call for it to immediately contact law-enforcement authorities.

But that isn't an option in cases where long-ago abuse is alleged.

In those instances, a case manager is assigned to investigate, both sides are interviewed, and if no conclusive evidence is found, the priest is allowed to continue his ministry. The case manager has the option of bringing in an outside investigator, Gallant said.

Victims' advocates and sexual-abuse counselors call the archdiocese's approach risky. It often takes victims years to come forward, and sure-fire evidence is hard to come by when dealing with abuses from 20 and 30 years ago. Often, it comes down to one person's word against another's.

"How many times does a person have to get hit over the head to realize that this person is not safe around children?" asked Terrie Light, Northwest coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"Do they need to wait another 10 or 15 years for someone else to make a complaint?"

The current policy was developed in response to a scandal in 1988, when it was revealed that the archdiocese had assigned the Rev. Jim McGreal to a Federal Way parish without notifying it that he had been removed from other parishes because of pedophilia accusations.

That same year, the Rev. Paul Conn pleaded guilty to molesting altar boys in a Port Angeles parish.

The policy requires immediate reporting by all clergy and employees of any allegations of child abuse to law-enforcement and child-protective authorities, workshop training on the prevention of sexual misconduct for any new employees from janitors to pastors, and it places people accused of sexual misconduct on administrative leave pending investigation.

But Berliner, who was part of a panel that drafted the reforms, said she couldn't recall whether they looked at the way older claims would be handled.

Gallant, who also wasn't sure what changes were made to the policy for dealing with older cases, said that for certain the archdiocese now approaches even older claims with emphasis on the accuser's needs. In that respect, even when claims are found to be inconclusive, the person is often offered counseling, according to archdiocese guidelines.

Said Gallant: "What we have learned is that our primary focus has to be on the pastoral care."

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