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'One Strike' Plan for Ousting Priests Has Catholics Divided

May 19, 2002 | The Washington Post

Eight years ago, the Rev. John Calicott left his Chicago parish in shame. He admitted involvement in a murky sexual incident with two 15-year-old boys, and he was sent for psychiatric treatment to the St. Luke Institute, a church-run hospital in Maryland.

Then, 18 months later, something extraordinary happened: He came back. He immediately disclosed to his parishioners at Holy Angels Church, a vibrant Roman Catholic congregation of 500 families on Chicago's South Side, where he had been during his "hellish limbo." He said doctors had assured him that he was not a danger to children, and he resumed his ministry with overwhelming support from his flock.

"He has repented. He has redeemed himself," Patricia Robinson, a retired teacher and single mother who attends Holy Angels, said last week. "I would trust Father John with my son from here to Timbuktu."

When the nation's nearly 300 active Catholic bishops gather in Dallas next month to consider a get-tough policy toward priests who sexually abuse children, they may be thinking primarily about John J. Geoghan, the infamous former Boston priest who has become the archetype of a serial, incurable predator. But some bishops may also remember John Calicott, who had a brief fall from grace and, supporters say, has served honorably ever since.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is under enormous public pressure to take strong, clear-cut measures to cope with the sex abuse scandal that has blackened the church's reputation and threatened whole dioceses with bankruptcy. Yet a desire to leave open the possibility of repentance and redemption, at least for some kinds of offenders, may keep the bishops from voting for a step that victims' groups say is vital -- a "one strike you're out" policy requiring the permanent removal from ministry of any priest who has sexually abused a minor.

"I think it's unfortunate for someone like Father Calicott, who is very popular and appears by all counts to be doing a good job in ministry. But my position is that if a priest has ever molested a child, he does not belong in the priesthood," said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of the 4,000-member Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

SNAP and other victims' organizations say strict enforcement of a one-strike policy is the only way to stop bishops from recycling such offenders as the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell of Baltimore, who was shot Monday night by one of his alleged victims, Dontee D. Stokes.

Cardinal William H. Keeler had dismissed Stokes's accusations in 1993 as "not credible" and kept Blackwell in his ministry, ignoring the advice of a lay review board. It was not until a second victim came forward that Blackwell was placed on administrative leave in 1998. "I would not make the same decision today," Keeler acknowledged last week.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles also said last week that he erred in giving a second chance to a priest who admitted in 1986 to "acting out sexually" with minors. Mahony had ordered the Rev. Michael S. Baker to avoid contact with children and to remain in counseling. But Baker proceeded to molest several more boys, two of whom sued the archdiocese and received a secret $1.3 million settlement in 2000.

Across the country, numerous priests have been quietly withdrawn from parishes, sent for psychological counseling and restored to ministry -- only to molest more children. So many priests committed further abuse after undergoing therapy at one treatment center, in Jemez Springs, N.M., that lawsuits forced the center into bankruptcy.

"I don't doubt that it's possible for a priest to change his ways, to change his life," Blaine said. "My problem is that there are hundreds of us who were molested after a bishop thought a perpetrator wouldn't do it to anybody else."

Forgiveness, Not Punishment

While the bishops want to convince an outraged laity that the church will no longer harbor sex offenders, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, by theological training and fraternal sympathy, has traditionally leaned toward forgiveness rather than punishment.

Canon law, the church's internal legal code, forbids sexual contact with minors. But it also requires bishops to try to reform a priest before imposing permanent punishment for any offense, said Monsignor Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at Catholic University.

"We're a church that basically deals with sinners. That's why we have confession and absolution," Green said. "Drumming someone out of the corps -- that's the last resort. Sometimes it's warranted. But it's not, at least in principle, the first resort."

Just how conflicted the Catholic leadership is over the issue became apparent in Rome last month, when Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington told reporters that he and other U.S. cardinals summoned by Pope John Paul II had reached consensus on a "one strike you're out" policy. A few hours later, not a word about it showed up in their final communiqué.

The president of the bishops' conference, Wilton D. Gregory, accompanied the cardinals to Rome. He predicted the bishops would adopt a "zero tolerance" policy in Dallas -- but only for future molestation cases. He and McCarrick suggested that the status of priests who have been accused of abuse in past years, and who are still in active ministry, should be reviewed individually.

Since the Rome meeting, the bishops' dilemma has only sharpened. Lawsuits over predatory priests and the long-silent suffering of victims have multiplied. Yet growing voices within the church warn against lumping together all misconduct and violating the rights of accused priests.

An article published in Rome yesterday by the influential Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica (Catholic Civilization) said that "if a bishop or a religious superior arrives at the moral certainty that an accusation is well-founded, he must quickly intervene to protect the community from other scandals and damage." But the author, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, dean of the canon law faculty at Rome's Gregorian University, said bishops should not turn over unsubstantiated allegations to civil authorities, force priests to take psychological tests or disclose to parishioners that a priest has undergone psychotherapy, because those actions would violate the priest's right to privacy and "good reputation."

Hurting 'a Lot of Good People'

Calicott, 55, says many parishioners have approached him to express hope that he will not be removed.

"They're concerned and worried about zero tolerance, what is that going to mean," he said. "They're saying, 'We hope they're not going to take you away; we don't want to go through that again.' "

In Calicott's opinion, an across-the-board policy of removing all priests who have committed sexual misconduct with minors would "harm a lot of good people" who are not pedophiles but have been caught in improper situations, particularly with teenagers.

"I totally disagree with 'one strike you're out' because it bespeaks human arrogance to think that we can know the many variables of every human situation," he said.

In his own case, Calicott has never accepted unequivocal blame.

"To understand the allegations against me, I would have to really violate priestly confidentiality and talk about the sins of a number of individuals, which I decline to do. I don't think it's ethical and I won't do it," he said.

"What I have been able to say is, something happened that should not have happened. It was wrong, and I'm sorry about that."

In March 1994, two men told the Chicago archdiocese that Calicott had molested them in 1976 when they were teenagers and he was an associate pastor at St. Ailbe Church. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin removed Calicott in April 1994, then reinstated him in October 1995.

Bernardin explained at the time that he was making an exception because there had been no other allegations against Calicott, parishioners favored his return and doctors had concluded his behavior was not "an expression of a fundamental psychological disorder." But the cardinal noted he had no doubt sexual misconduct had occurred.

The archdiocese has assigned a priest to live at the Holy Angels rectory with Calicott and act as a monitor. Calicott is not supposed to meet alone with minors, but he still serves as a Boy Scout master and teaches at Holy Angels School, the largest African American Catholic grammar school in the nation.

"I think sometimes in the black community, because we've been an oppressed community, there is a greater understanding that we are all sinners, that people fail, situations are extremely complex," Calicott said.

While 500 parishioners donned yellow ribbons and packed Holy Angels to celebrate Calicott's return in 1995, victims' groups picketed the church. They cited, among other things, his incomplete admissions about what happened between him and the two boys, whose names have not been made public.

Seeking a National Policy

How to deal with such cases will be the central question when the bishops meet in Dallas. McCarrick has called for a national policy requiring each diocese to take five steps: inform civil authorities of any allegation of abuse; temporarily remove the priest pending an investigation; send him for psychological evaluation and therapy; reach out to victims; and create a lay board to review personnel files.

Even with such a policy, some bishops may decide -- as Baltimore's Keeler did -- to ignore their lay review boards. Or they may try -- like Mahony of Los Angeles -- to deal with abuse cases as quietly as possible, both to avoid scandal and to minimize the strain on the priest.

That strain undoubtedly can be great. At least five U.S. priests have committed suicide in connection with sexual abuse allegations in the past decade, including the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, 64, a Connecticut priest who hanged himself Thursday at the St. Luke Institute.

But the proposed policy does not resolve a key question: What should happen after a priest has undergone therapy?

A few dioceses -- including Los Angeles, the largest in the nation -- have announced zero-tolerance policies, declaring that they will not allow any priest who has committed abuse to resume ministry. A commission set up by Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law recommended Friday that the Boston archdiocese take this course.

The sex abuse policies in many dioceses, however, allow priests to return to ministry if a doctor determines they do not pose a danger to children and if they remain under supervision. Typically, such priests are placed in administrative jobs or in positions in which there is no regular contact with children.

Some bishops, including Washington's McCarrick, make a distinction between "pedophiles," who abuse children before the age of puberty, and "ephebophiles," who are attracted to teenagers. Others have suggested distinguishing between serial and one-time offenders.

"There is a difference between a moral monster like Geoghan who preys upon little children and does so in a serial fashion and someone who, perhaps under the influence of alcohol, engages in an action with a 17- or 16-year-old young woman who returns his affection," Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said in Rome.

"That is still a crime in every instance, and so the civil law doesn't distinguish. In terms of culpability and in terms of the possibility for reform of one's life, they're two very different sets of circumstances," George said.

To victims, such comments are evidence that the bishops' first priority is the redemption of priests rather than the prevention of abuse.

"They say an 'ephebophile' is not as bad as a 'pedophile.' That's insane. Where's the bright line? Is it okay to abuse a 13-year-old but not a 12-year-old?" demanded Lee White, a lawyer and SNAP member. "A crime is a crime. And as far as I know, it's still a sin, too."

Getting Another Strike

In the past, bishops sometimes moved known sex offenders from parish to parish without informing parishioners or civil authorities. Lawsuits exposing that practice, first in Boston and then in dioceses across the country, set off the widening crisis of trust in the church.

Dozens of dioceses have reviewed their personnel files and removed such priests in recent months. But an unknown number of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse are still serving, without public disclosure, in parishes, hospitals and other assignments.

Calicott is one of just a handful of U.S. priests who have been publicly removed for child sexual abuse and then reinstated with full knowledge of parishioners. Among the others was the Rev. Robert J. Fisher, who pleaded guilty in 1988 to the misdemeanor offenses of sexual imposition and contributing to the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl in an Ohio parish.

After serving 30 days in jail, Fisher spent a year in residential therapy at a church-run center in Downington, Pa., and three years in outpatient care before doctors declared him fit for ministry. He was appointed pastor of St. Michael's Church in Toledo in 1992 and served there until this month, when Bishop James Hoffman placed him on administrative leave pending the outcome of the bishops' meeting in June.

"It is my hope that following deliberations [in Dallas] that I will have some clear direction in guiding Father Fisher's priestly ministry," Hoffman said in a letter to St. Michael's parishioners, who had known about Fisher's past and were tearful and angry over his removal.

"Father Fisher's situation is completely different from all the rest of what's going on around the country," said Thomas S. Facey, who has attended St. Michael's for 27 years.

Opinion surveys show that Catholics feel anger and betrayal over the secret reassignment of priests who have committed sexual misconduct with minors. But Calicott's experience in Chicago and Fisher's in Toledo suggest that many Catholics might support the rehabilitation of some offenders, if they were informed and consulted in advance.

"That's the core of who we are as a church -- the belief in the possibility of redemption," Calicott said.

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