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Panel of Lay People Investigated Delaware Priests

Jan 28, 2003 | The News Journal When Catholic officials in Delaware announced their action against three priests accused of sexual abuse, they were following a policy that grew out of the wave of sex abuse charges that emerged nationwide last year.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was written in Dallas at a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in June. It was then rewritten to satisfy Vatican officials in Rome.

As called for in the charter, a panel of mostly Catholic lay people was appointed in Delaware by the head of the Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli.

The 12-person panel was divided into teams to investigate the charges. Each team had two panel members and two priests from the diocese's administrative office who were not panel members, said the panel's chairman, retired Delaware Superior Court Judge Vincent A. Bifferato.

Members of those teams interviewed victims, the priests and other witnesses as well as consulting church records. They then presented their findings to the entire panel, which is called the Diocesan Review Board, Bifferato said.

"You try to be transparent," Bifferato said. "But we agreed to keep as much as possible confidential to protect everyone's privacy."

The group began investigating the allegations only after the Delaware Attorney General's office had finished its own investigation of the men and decided not to prosecute them because the statute of limitations had expired.

Just as the national policy drew criticism from victims rights groups for not being tough enough, the local panel has drawn fire for excluding victims of abuse or their representatives.

It would take much more openness to satisfy Mark V. Serrano, regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Serrano believes bishops should open up personnel files and secret archives, lift gag orders on victims of previous cases, and provide compensation to victims with "no strings attached."

The Delaware board is made up of 11 lay people who are not employed by the diocese, and one priest. Two board members are not Catholic, said Anthony Flynn, an attorney hired by the diocese to handle any legal claims that may grow out of the abuse allegations.

The panel will continue to meet, but for the moment it has nothing to investigate, Bifferato said. A diocese spokesman said there are no diocesan priests in active ministry who have been accused of sexual abuse.

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