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N.J. Diocese Liaisons Will Report Abuse

A State Agency Helped Work Out The Deal. Critics Say It's Still Self-Policing

Dec 3, 2002 | Philadelphia Inquirer

Each Roman Catholic diocese in New Jersey will soon appoint a liaison to ensure that allegations of sexual abuse are immediately reported to law enforcement authorities.

Under the "memorandum of understanding" announced yesterday with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, the state's dioceses will designate at least one person to report any incident whether involving a minor or an adult - as soon as an alleged victim comes forward.

The Division of Criminal Justice director, Peter Harvey, said yesterday's agreement which he called "the first of its kind in the nation" would help establish a uniform process for reporting sensitive cases involving sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church has been hit by allegations that some of its priests have sexually abused minors and that the church did little to stop it.

Under the guidelines of the agreement, once a church liaison reports a sexual-abuse claim, the county prosecutor's office will investigate the matter to decide whether any criminal charges should be filed. Also under the guidelines, prosecutors will be able to conduct investigations of cases regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired.

"This is a new beginning," Harvey said yesterday, flanked by top leaders of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the state's bishops. "It is a new beginning because it gives us the opportunity to evaluate claims when they are made. There is no screening process in the diocese to filter out what will or will not be reported."

Under the agreement, all employees of the church, whether they work in parishes or schools, will be provided with training so that they know exactly what to do if they believe sexual abuse of a minor has occurred or could occur.

In short, the agreement calls for county prosecutors to be notified when "there is reason to believe" that criminal conduct has occurred in any of New Jersey's seven diocese, or when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of criminal conduct might be lost if law enforcement officials were not immediately notified.

That, law enforcement officials said yesterday, will assist them in receiving information on alleged abuse earlier, and ensure that they and not the church make critical decisions on whether the claims have merit.

Information confidential

All information given to law enforcement, Harvey said, will be kept confidential.

William Bolan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said the dioceses would continue to cooperate with authorities by providing information on both current and past claims.

"The Catholic bishops," Bolan said, "are committed to continuing their efforts to prevent sexual abuse of minors in New Jersey."

But Mark Serrano, a board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said yesterday's memorandum of understanding "does not say much more than that the bishops of the Catholic church are going to now have to abide by the law."

Serrano, whose organization was not consulted in drafting the agreement, also said the memorandum of understanding relies on the Catholic church's willingness to tell the truth.

He also said that the new liaisons who will be named are going to be designated by diocesan officials.

"A handpicked liaison by the church," Serrano said, "is not going to keep the children safe or provide justice to victims."

Serrano and members of the organization are asking for a statewide grand jury to convene and issue subpoenas for all files kept by the Catholic dioceses on past and present sexual-abuse claims.

Presumes good faith

"It will take the force of the law to protect children," Serrano said.

Harvey, the state's Criminal Justice Division director, acknowledged that the agreement presumes good faith on the part of the dioceses in disclosing claims.

If it is determined that the church has obstructed an investigation, Harvey said, the law enforcement community can still rely on "all of the traditional investigative weapons," including grand jury subpoenas and search warrants.

Harvey and other law enforcement officials said they did not expect a crush of old claims being referred to county prosecutors, mainly because many claims of past abuse have already been investigated. And in some of those claims, it is likely that the statute of limitations has expired.

Yesterday's announcement follows months of criticism that some priests in the Catholic church sexually abused minors, and that the church did little to stop the abuse, even going so far as to allow the clergymen to remain in the priesthood.

In response, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a directive earlier this year for the country's 195 dioceses on how to deal with such claims among the guidelines was a directive that obliged every bishop to immediately remove from ministry any priest or deacon "credibly accused" of abusing a minor. The Vatican has since ordered the bishops to revise some of the directives to conform with church law.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has appointed a panel of commissioners to review its policies and procedures on matters of clerical sexual abuse.

The panel's report is expected before the end of the year, archdiocese officials said.

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