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Questions Follow Reforms

Despite changes spurred by allegations of sex abuse by priests, more information is sought in local cases

Apr 22, 2003 | Buffalo News

Nearly a year after the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo revealed that 12 to 15 area priests had been accused of sexual impropriety over the past 20 years, diocesan officials have yet to make public what happened with as many as eight of the accused priests.

The refusal to comment on the cases or to say precisely how many priests have been accused comes as the diocese implements reforms aimed at preventing future sexual abuse.

The reforms include:

The creation of a new volunteer panel of lay professionals to review how the diocese handles complaints.

A plan to hire a professional who would investigate future complaints of abuse.

An agreement, near completion, with area prosecutors spelling out how the diocese will report any future allegations of abuse to civil authorities.

A plan to implement, by September, a "safe environment" program that would include criminal background checks of any diocesan or parish personnel who regularly work with minors.

Members of the lay panel, which has met twice so far, said they are satisfied the diocese properly handled prior cases.

But some victims of sexual abuse and their advocates doubt that such boards even when stocked with independent professionals can be effective. And they're concerned that the church's attempts to reform will ring hollow if diocesan officials aren't more forthcoming about what happened in the cases in which abuse was alleged.

"There's a really troubling lack of information," said Susan Vivian Mangold, a law professor at the University at Buffalo who specializes in child welfare law.

Seven of the 12 to 15 local priests accused of abuse were removed from ministry at various times prior to last year in accordance with a 1990 diocesan policy on abuse.

The Buffalo Diocese has said little about the remaining five to eight cases, declining to give an exact number or to explain whether the accused priests are still in ministry.

"Reviews are ongoing. A good deal has been accomplished. There is more work to do. We are moving forward and making progress," said Kevin A. Keenan, diocesan spokesman, in response to a list of questions.

It is not known whether some of the remaining priests accused over the past two decades still are in active ministry in this diocese or elsewhere, or even still are alive.

The diocese declined to comment on the reason for the delay in revealing what happened to the accused priests. However, some dioceses have been waiting for the Vatican to approve new norms governing how bishops discipline abusive priests before acting.

Those norms took effect in March. The bishops first approved new norms in June in Dallas, but the Vatican significantly modified them to include more due process for priests.

The modified norms state that "even a single act of sexual abuse" is grounds for the removal of a priest from ministry. However, the norms also specify due process for the accused and spell out some of the steps bishops must take in handling abuse complaints.

Those steps call for any investigation to be conducted "in harmony with canon law" and ensure that "all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect the reputation of the accused during the investigation."

Some accused priests removed without due process subsequently hired civil and canon lawyers to fight their cases.

"There were some bishops who perhaps moved a little too quickly in terms of putting the Dallas norms into operation," said the Rev. Kevin McKenna, pastor of St. Cecilia parish in the Diocese of Rochester and past president of the Canon Law Society of America.

"Sometimes bishops were removing priests from active ministry before there was even a preliminary investigation," he said. "It was almost an indication that he was guilty in the minds of most parishioners. The (modified) norms have tried to improve this by insisting that a preliminary investigation take place before the bishop takes any action against the priest in question."

Like civil law, canon law includes statutes of limitations. In cases involving alleged abuse from many years ago, bishops would have trouble pushing for the removal of an accused priest unless he admits to the abuse.

The new norms also stipulated that bishops create volunteer review boards to advise them in assessing past, present and future allegations of sexual abuse and determining whether priests are suitable to minister.

Dioceses across the country have been tapping respected professionals lawyers, former judges, child psychologists and others to serve on the boards, which bishops say are evidence of their commitment to clean up the scandal and prevent future abuse.

Panel satisfied

Joseph P. McCarthy, the recently retired county and state judge, serves as chairman of the nine-person review board in Buffalo.

McCarthy said the diocese has been forthcoming with information about past cases. He and other board members would not discuss specifics of their meetings.

The publicity surrounding the scandal in the past year did not generate any new complaints about priests in the Buffalo diocese, he said.

The board also is not aware of concerns about any priests in active ministry, McCarthy said.

Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark said he has received only one new complaint, a rambling letter from a Florida resident regarding a priest who is deceased. Clark said there was nothing he could do about the complaint.

District attorneys in New York State have five years from the time of the alleged abuse to prosecute a sexual abuse case.

Four members of the volunteer review board interviewed for this story said they were satisfied that the diocese properly handled prior allegations of sexual abuse.

They also were quick to point out that they had no interest in serving on a board only to make the diocese look good.

"I had some trust in Bishop (Henry J.) Mansell that he would truly use this board and not just be able to say to a reporter, "Hey, we've got this board,' " said Roderick Quebral, principal counsel for the state Attorney Grievance Committee in the 8th Judicial District. Quebral prosecuted sex crimes for two years as a former Erie County assistant district attorney.

"There was nothing that made me uncomfortable about how anything was handled," he said. "The things that have been brought to their attention, they've done what they've had to do to protect kids in particular."

Mansell, who has been bishop of the Buffalo Diocese since June 1995, attended both meetings, as did Monsignor Robert J. Cunningham, diocesan vicar general and chancellor. The chancellor explained to board members how previous cases had been handled.

Board members did not examine any documents or speak with alleged victims or perpetrators of abuse.

"We basically reviewed what was involved, what information the diocese had, what information the diocese attempted to get and ultimately how each case was resolved," said Maureen O. Hurley, an attorney and an executive vice president at Rich Products Corp.

Critics have questions

But Tobin M. Gilman, who reached a $150,000 settlement with the Buffalo diocese after he reported in 1993 being abused by a priest in the 1970s, said he believes the problem is far greater than what has been reported so far.

"They still haven't come clean," said Gilman.

Colleen Ptak, who claimed in a 1995 federal lawsuit that she was repeatedly sexually attacked by the Rev. Robert J. Beisinger, doubts the full extent of abuse in the Buffalo Diocese has been revealed.

"I think there are victims, in fact I know there are victims, that haven't spoken out," said Ptak, who now lives in Lansing, Mich.

In most instances of child sex abuse, "if you know about an old case, there's a substantial likelihood" there will be other cases, said Mangold, the UB professor, who claims a diocese interested in helping victims would look more closely at reported cases and provide more encouragement for others to come forward.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a nationwide support group, said the scandal "erupts most severely" in dioceses where the criminal and civil statutes enable victims to seek justice and where victims know they aren't alone.

Clohessy is skeptical about many of the bishops' policy changes aimed at preventing future abuses, including the appointment of a diocesan staffer to handle abuse complaints.

He calls it the first of "several steps in protecting the perpetrator."

Review boards consisting of lay people, in theory, could improve how dioceses handle abuse claims, but some dioceses have had such boards in place for a decade or more and still have had problems, he added.

"These bodies are given limited or even inaccurate information about the cases," Clohessy said. "The impression is always given that these folks are the decision makers, but we've seen that that's often not the case. Bishops are still holding all of the information and essentially calling all of the shots."

In at least one diocese, some board members quit after a dispute with the bishop about the role of the board.

In another, the bishop appointed a retired judge who had written a State Supreme Court decision that makes it impossible for people to sue churches in Wisconsin because of the actions of their clergy.

"The pattern seems to be that the boards are heavily dominated by people who clearly think very highly of their bishop and are very trusting," said Clohessy.

Restoring trust

Members of the Buffalo review board disputed that assessment.

"People can feel very comfortable that this board is an active board that wants what's best for the diocese," said Dr. Tom Mazur, a clinical assistant professor of both psychiatry and pediatrics in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine.

Hurley said she agreed to serve on the board because she was "deeply troubled" by the scandal within the church and has seen first-hand the consequences of abuse through her volunteer work with children.

On the national level, bishops also have turned to highly regarded professionals to help them restore credibility with the faithful.

Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor, serves as the chairman of a national review board assisting the bishops in navigating their way out of the current crisis.

In December, they appointed Kathleen L. McChesney, who was the third highest ranking official in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to serve as executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection.

McChesney will begin visiting the nation's 195 dioceses to check on their progress in preventing future abuse including the implementation of a lay review board and the hiring of a professional staff person to handle abuse complaints.

"Everything that's in the charter will be audited," she said.

The effort is expected to take five to six months, and it will be followed by a public report on McChesney's findings.


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