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New Panel on Priestly Abuse Is Planned

Jun 20, 2002 | The Los Angeles Times

The Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles plans to unveil a newly revamped clergy misconduct review board today with more lay members, authority to review every allegation of priestly sex abuse in the region and direct reporting access to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

The revamped board, which will be headed by former Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Richard P. Byrne, will replace a more informal group whose responsibilities were not as clearly spelled out.

In the past, members essentially advised the vicar of clergy on whatever cases he chose to bring them, and recommendations were not always implemented quickly, according to board member Nanette de Fuentes, a psychologist and sex-abuse survivor who helped found the original board in 1994. But she said the old board had also successfully pushed the archdiocese to make several tough changes, such as more quickly removing priests under investigation from active duty and informing parishes that their priests had been removed for sexual misconduct.

The new Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board, among other things, will conduct an annual review of archdiocesan sexual misconduct policies, review all complaints and verify that the archdiocese has reported them to civil authorities. The board will also make recommendations to Mahony on such issues as outreach to victims, whether a priest should be removed from ministry and whether a parish should be notified of the alleged misconduct.

The new board represents one of several changes Mahony has made in the last several months to strengthen policies against priestly sex abuse in the region. Today's announcement comes just days after the nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved a sweeping national policy to permanently oust from public ministry all priests and deacons found to have sexually abused minors.

"I truly believe this is a reaffirmation of many years of professionalism and commitment of the archdiocese ... to effectively and compassionately deal with the problem of clergy sexual abuse," De Fuentes said.

She said she was initially "a little skeptical" about whether the new board would represent any substantive improvement. But two days of meetings on the board's new duties and Mahony's assurances of a more central role in archdiocesan policymaking have convinced her that the panel will become a "cutting edge" model for other cities, she said.

More than 50 priests in the three-county archdiocese are under investigation by authorities for alleged abuse of minors. Although Mahony is regarded as one of the nation's leading proponents of tough reform, he has also come under fire for his handling of some misconduct cases.

The cardinal had, for instance, transferred Father Michael Stephen Baker from parish to parish even after the priest confessed his sexual misconduct of minors to archdiocesan authorities in 1986. Baker was finally asked to retire in 2000 after a $1.3-million settlement was made.

Asked how such a case could fall through the review board's cracks, Byrne replied, "I'm not really sure." But De Fuentes said she was upset after reading of the Baker case in The Times and met with Mahony to find out if it had been reported to the board. (Cases come to the board without the names of priests, parishes or victims, she said.)

According to De Fuentes, Mahony told her the Baker case first surfaced before the board was formed and had subsequently been taken to the board, but not in great detail.

De Fuentes, who could not remember the board's recommendation on the case, said Mahony's explanations assured her that such handling of cases "would not happen now."

"I do not feel there was any malicious intent," she said. "I really feel [the lack of board involvement] had to do with it being an old case."

The national policy adopted by the nation's bishops in Dallas last week requires all dioceses to establish lay-dominated review boards to assist dioceses in evaluating allegations and assessing an accused perpetrator's fitness for ministry.

Some Catholic reform groups have argued that the only way such boards can act truly independently of church authorities is for members to be appointed by lay pastoral councils rather than bishops and to have binding, not advisory, authority. But no diocese has yet created such a board--including in Los Angeles, where Mahony has appointed all members to serve in a strictly advisory capacity.

"The bishops are not letting go of any control, which means the same people who made the mistakes that created this crisis are still the ones making the decisions alone. So we haven't really progressed very much," said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for Call to Action, a Catholic reform group.

Byrne, who helped develop the new board's duties in consultation with Mahony and his representatives, disagreed.

"Cardinal Mahony is the CEO, is the fellow in charge," Byrne said. "He's the one who's going to have to make the tough decisions and take ultimate responsibility. He can't give that [authority] to some lay board such as ours."

In April, Byrne helped direct an archdiocesan attorney on which court official to call to arrange an extraordinary late-night court hearing seeking to prevent The Times from publishing e-mails by Mahony and others. But Byrne said he is unbiased and "can be completely independent" as board chairman.

Unlike the previous board, all members of the new panel will be publicly identified, as a step toward making archdiocesan policies more transparent.

The new board will have 13 rather than nine members, nearly all of them laypeople. They will include one or two priests, a nun, an abuse victim, parents of abuse victims and mental-health professionals.

One new member, Sister Diane Donoghue of Esperanza Community Housing Corp., said she hoped the new board would "live by the Catholic social and economic justice teachings of accountability, transparency and challenging abusive power." She also said she would bring the values of her Sisters of Social Service to champion "those without voices."

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