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Reaction Mixed On Priest Abuse Policy

Rules Weak, Some Say; Others Believe Stance Acceptable

Nov 15, 2002 | The Courier-Journal Charlie Kremer thinks the revised policy on priest sexual abuse approved by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops Wednesday isn't necessarily weaker than the original as long as it's strictly enforced.

''The rules and guidelines are fine . . . but you've got to have consequences and they've got to be enforced,'' said Kremer, a Louisville dentist who has helped organize a group of former Holy Spirit Elementary students who allege they were sexually abused as children by the Rev. Louis Miller.

But Mary C. Miller fears the revisions may have ''watered down'' the church's policies for dealing with priests who sexually abuse children.

''It sounds to me like they're still shirking it,'' said Miller, who alleges in a lawsuit that she was sexually abused as a child by Louis Miller, her uncle.

The Very Rev. Mark Spalding, chief canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Louisville, said the bottom line is the same -- the revised policy calls for the removal of priests from the ministry for a single act of substantiated sexual abuse of a child.

''That just reaffirmed what the bishops said in Dallas,'' Spalding said. The bishops adopted the original, ''zero tolerance'' policy in June at a meeting in Dallas and this week revised it at the direction of the Vatican.

Some of the changes brought the policy more in line with canon law, which governs the church. Critics have pointed out the original policy conflicted with canon law in several areas, mostly dealing with due-process rights of priests.

The policy is of particular interest in the Archdiocese of Louisville, where Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly has removed eight priests from ministry for past offenses under the policy. Nearly 200 people have filed lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused by priests or others associated with the church, and three priests, including Miller, face criminal charges of child sexual abuse. They have pleaded innocent.

Under the revised policy:

Sexual abuse allegations would still go before the review boards created by the original policy. But rather than refer the matter to the bishop for final action, the board would refer allegations found credible to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, a body of Vatican religious officials.

That body would refer most cases back to local tribunals religious courts but some cases might be handled from Rome.

A priest accused of sexual abuse would have the right to a trial before a canon law court of three priests, which would decide his guilt or innocence, though bishops would still retain the right to remove any priest if they believe he shouldn't be active in the ministry.

People must bring allegations of childhood sexual abuse within 10 years of their 18th birthday in order for possible action by a tribunal under a canon law ''statute of limitations'' that the previous policy didn't address. But the Vatican may waive that requirement if it believes a case warrants action.
That provision would have no effect on a person's right to bring a lawsuit or seek criminal charges in state court.

Bishops would not be required to report all allegations of sexual abuse to authorities if local law doesn't require it. Kentucky and Indiana require abuse to be reported.
Mary Miller said she's unhappy about the requirement that people report childhood sexual abuse by their 28th birthday. She said it takes some people many years after they become adults to report alleged abuse.

''I certainly don't think it's going to make other people come forward,'' Miller said.

Lynnie Meyer, president of the Center for Women and Families, agreed that sexual abuse is difficult to report especially if the perpetrator is a priest and the victim has been raised a Catholic and taught to respect the church.

''You're going up against one of the most powerful institutions in the world,'' said Meyer, who is also a member of the board created by the Archdiocese of Louisville to review allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

Mary Miller also said she thinks it's wrong to drop the requirement that bishops report all allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities, even if state laws don't require it.

''They should report it regardless,'' she said.

John F. Robertson, a history professor in Michigan who alleges in a lawsuit that he was sexually abused as a child at Holy Spirit parish in Louisville, said that he's not surprised that the Vatican insisted on the right of priests to a trial in church court.

''This issue of clergy being tried in canonical courts goes back to the Middle Ages,'' he said.

But Robertson said he's glad that the review board, which includes lay people, retains a major role in dealing with such cases.

''It's important to have some sort of lay participation in review of these cases,'' he said. ''It has been too easy in past decades for the church to take care of its own and bury these kinds of things.''

Two members of the Louisville archdiocesan review board said they don't believe the revised policy will weaken their work.

''I'm hoping that locally, we'll be even more aggressive than what the national policies are,'' Meyer said.

''I don't think any of them affect what we're doing,'' said Shepherdsville lawyer John D. Laun, chairman of the nine-member panel of six lay people, two priests and the archdiocese's top administrator.

The Rev. Bill Medley, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Bardstown, said the clergy sex-abuse controversy including debate over the bishops' policy has been discouraging for parish priests but they don't have time to dwell on it.

''We have an important job to do, and even when things get bad we have to get back to work and continue the good work of the church,'' Medley said. ''We don't have the luxury of sitting around being depressed about it.''

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