The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta is releasing a policy today that requires the removal of any priest found guilty of sexual abuse and obligates church personnel to report suspicions to church authorities.
It also requires background checks for employees who deal with children.
The new policy, developed after a year of discussion and review, also promises cooperation with civil authorities and establishes a board to advise the archbishop on handling abuse allegations. But the decision about whether an allegation is actionable remains firmly in the hands of the archbishop.
The policy is the Atlanta archdiocese’s response to guidelines that were adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding sexual abuse by priests. U.S bishops took up the issue after national reports of abuse of children by priests rocked the Catholic Church last year. The scandal resulted in millions of dollars in payouts, dismissal of hundreds of priests, and the resignations of six bishops including the powerful archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law.
The Atlanta policy “calls for zero tolerance, which is what the bishops conference voted on and which I wanted,” said Atlanta Archbishop John Donoghue, who described it as “very thorough.”
Some critics disagreed.
“It’s like the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Willie Tschirhart, whose son was abused by an Atlanta priest. “The archbishop still has the sole authority and decides what’s to be done. Whether this policy has any meaning in getting the job done, I don’t know.”
The policy says: “The damage caused by sexual abuse is devastating and long lasting. It is even more tragic when its consequence is a loss of the faith that the Catholic Church has a sacred duty to foster.”
The policy says the advisory board must be composed of at least five members it describes as being “of outstanding integrity and good judgment.” They are appointed by the archbishop for five-year terms. Board members, who already are in place, have decided not to make their names public.
Advisory role only
Fred Isaf, a lawyer who agreed to act as spokesman for the advisory board, said it is “not an investigative body.”
The archbishop might, but is not obligated to, ask input from the advisory board at any time in dealing with an accusation. If he requests the advice of the board, the policy says he must provide members with all “pertinent evidence” related to the case.
Isaf, a parishioner at St. Andrew’s in Roswell, said he believes the archdiocese is putting strong practices and procedures in place to protect people from sex abuse when possible, and deal effectively with abuse if it occurs.
Donoghue said he won’t hesitate to involve the advisory board in decisions about the credibility of allegations of sexual abuse. “But if they disagree, I still have to make a decision,” he said.
Jan Larango, who founded an archdiocesan program in Atlanta to prevent sex abuse and counsel victims after learning that her two sons were abused by a priest, said the church still was not handling the issue properly.
“I think it should be completely taken out of the diocese’s hands, and it should go directly to the advisory board,” said Larango. “The advisory board needs to have more leverage and should be known to the public. We don’t need any more hush-hush.”
Larango also expressed concern about the thoroughness of the background checks: “If previous misconduct has been covered up, background checks have no validity.”
Ellie Harold said the changes are positive, but agreed that the accusations should go directly to the advisory board. She is a minister ordained by the Association of Unity Churches who said she was molested about 40 years ago by a priest serving at St. Joseph Catholic School in Marietta.
“There is no accountability now, because the board is anonymous,” she said. “I feel that the policy is too much about the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. They haven’t gone the extra mile that would have satisfied me.”
Release of the Atlanta revision comes as an outside auditing firm is examining the country’s 195 dioceses to determine their degree of compliance with policies adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002. The audit is due to be completed this fall.
In another undertaking, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York is attempting to compile a comprehensive picture of the extent of the sex abuse problem in the American church since 1950. As of last month, about two-thirds of the dioceses and male religious orders in the United States had completed at least part of a survey by the college, according to a July 29 report. The John Jay study is expected to be released next year.
Causes to be studied
Plans call for a third study to focus on the causes of sex abuse in the church. All three efforts are under the auspices of a national review board appointed last year as part of a package of church reforms adopted by the U.S. bishops.
The Atlanta archdiocese has not yet been audited, but it has submitted paperwork for the John Jay study, Donoghue said.
The national scandal first came to light in 2002 when The Boston Globe published a series of articles examining claims of abuse against the Boston archdiocese.
On July 24, after a 16-month investigation, Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly reported that priests and other workers in the archdiocese probably had molested more than 1,000 people over six decades.
Reilly warned that a new Boston policy released in May is insufficient. He cited concerns that the archbishop retains too much control over investigations, discipline and membership of a lay review panel.