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Experts Troubled By Church Policy On Sex Abuse of Children

Nov 26, 2002 | Buffalo News

They aren't raising their voices or issuing any ultimatums. And they're not blasting the Catholic Church.

But quietly, and mostly behind the scenes, almost a dozen local professionals on the issue of child sex abuse are expressing deep concerns about the U.S. bishops' recently revised and weakened policy toward suspected sexual abuse of children by priests.

They also are expressing frustration that the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has not moved more quickly to revise its own policy on sexual misconduct. Above all, they want to put the focus of the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse scandal back where they think it belongs - on the needs of the sexually abused children.

"This scandal is not about false accusations against priests," said Susan Vivian Mangold, a University at Buffalo law professor. "This scandal is not about due process for priests. This scandal is about the sexual abuse of children."

Any allegations of sexual misconduct should be reported immediately to law enforcement officials, those professionals urge. That would guarantee that trained specialists investigate the allegations and that abused children are not further traumatized by an inappropriate investigation.

Currently in New York State, officials of the Catholic Church are not required - either by state law or church policy - to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the proper authorities.

But in at least four large dioceses downstate, district attorneys have reached agreements with local bishops to immediately report to civil authorities any alleged sexual abuse of children by clergy.

No such agreement has been reached in the Diocese of Buffalo, despite efforts by the eight local district attorneys who have been corresponding with diocesan officials.

"We asked for a similar agreement, and we had hoped to have an agreement by September," Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy said. "Here it is November, and we don't have one yet."

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, who confers frequently on the matter with an attorney for the diocese, Terrence M. Connors, has been more restrained in his comments on this issue. But he also believes that it is time for a commitment from the diocese to report any credible accusations of abuse to civil authorities.

"I think that the time is ripe for all of us to sit down and resolve this issue once and for all," Clark said. "That would be evidence of good faith on everyone's part, so we can put any speculation or doubt to rest."

Clark was quick to add, though, that he has never felt, "not today, not yesterday, not last year" - that the Diocese of Buffalo ever has tried to cover up a sex-abuse case involving a priest.

Other professionals dealing with the sexual abuse of children have been more skeptical, wondering why the Buffalo diocese has not revealed whether any priests have been removed from their posts recently because of incidents of sexual abuse.

The most outspoken local professional may be Dr. Jack F. Coyne, a pediatrician and Catholic priest, formerly for the Roman Church and currently for the Eastern Rite.

"As a church, we should have apologized for what we've done to our children, and we need to move forward to protect our children," Coyne said. "Specifically, I think our diocese has been very weak in taking a strong stand."

Diocesan officials, though, paint a different portrait, pointing to several actions that they have taken:

The local diocese has had its own sexual-misconduct policy in place since 1990.

Late last month, Bishop Henry J. Mansell appointed a nine-member panel to help the diocese deal with cases of sexual and physical abuse of minors by priests and other diocesan personnel.

Mansell repeatedly has deplored the sexual abuse of minors, calling it "despicable, repugnant, deplorable, a grievous sin and a crime."

He also has apologized, "with the most profound sentiments of sorrow, to anyone who has been sexually abused by a cleric or anyone else ministering in the Diocese of Buffalo."

It would have been imprudent for the diocese to enter an agreement with the local district attorneys before the Vatican approved the U.S. bishops' latest policy on the issue, said Kevin A. Keenan, the diocese's director of communications.

"We have always cooperated fully with the district attorneys of Western New York, and we will continue to do so," Keenan said. "We look forward to meeting with the district attorneys once the Holy See acts."

Critics of the Catholic Church's stance both here and across the nation say the stakes are high for young victims of sexual abuse.

"As an advocate for children, it is difficult for people to understand the depth of trauma to sexually abused children, especially when it's a spiritual caretaker," said Ann Marie Tucker, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara. "If you can't trust the spiritual leader in your own church, who do you trust? Who do you turn to, for trust, for solace?"

The local professionals on the issue of child sexual abuse began writing letters to Mansell in late May, expressing their continuing concerns about the national scandal and asking him to take a firm stand in favor of the "zero tolerance" policy toward abusive priests.

The continuing debate about the Catholic Church's handling of the lingering sexual-abuse scandal heated up during the U.S. bishops' two recent conferences.

Last June in Dallas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a tough new "zero tolerance" policy that would strip any abuser of his ministry and require each diocese to report any accusations to civil authorities. But the Vatican said the policy failed to protect priests facing allegations and clashed with canon law.

So in Washington two weeks ago, the bishops approved a policy with stronger protections for accused priests.

The most outspoken of the local professionals have been critical of the revised policy.

"The focus should be on the children and getting them the help they need," Coyne said. "Now the primary concern seems to be the protection of the priest who may be inappropriately accused."

Mangold and Murphy wrote a letter calling the new national policy inadequate to address the church's handling of sexual abuse of children. "In the face of abuse of children in many dioceses throughout the country, the recent policy fails to allay fears about the safety of our children, fails to hold bishops accountable in the past or in the future, and fails to create open processes that protect children," their letter says.

Coming out of the Dallas conference, Mangold said, was the sense that the Catholic Church was beginning to look at itself and the harm it caused for sexually abused children. "All we saw coming out of Washington were retreats from that feeling," she said.

A key issue to these professionals is the immediate reporting of such incidents to local police departments, many of which have specialized sex-abuse squads.

"Our investigations are confidential until any charges are filed," said Lt. David Mann, commander of the Buffalo Police Sex Offense Squad. "Because we have a high level of expertise in dealing with these allegations, we can address the concerns of the victims and the church's concerns about false accusations."

The professionals emphasized that Erie, Niagara and Genesee counties all have sophisticated Child Advocacy Centers. "One of the messages I would like to get out to the diocese and the public is that, in Western New York, we've come a long way in how we respond to allegations of child sexual abuse," Tucker said.

While the district attorneys continue to talk with Connors, they seek state legislation that would add the clergy to the list of professions that must report child abuse to authorities. "Although I still am hopeful that the diocese will enter into a voluntary agreement for immediate reporting to authorities, I am looking more toward Albany for legislation that will address the issue," Murphy said. "I see the solution more in Albany than in the Buffalo chancery."

All these professionals want to see a more open process, marked by cooperation from the diocese.

As Murphy put it, "We think sunshine is the best disinfectant."

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