A seven-member review board will advise the Diocese of Allentown’s bishop when clerics are accused of sexually abusing minors, the diocese announced Thursday.
“The purpose is to ensure that the victims’ rights are being taken care of as well as the due process for the priest,” said board member Michael J. O’Connor, an attorney who practices in Allentown.
In keeping with the Charter of the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted and revised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Allentown Bishop Edward P. Cullen established the “confidential consultative body” and appointed a victims’ assistance coordinator to set up counseling.
Cullen named Barbara W. Murphy, secretary of Catholic Human Services and executive director of the Catholic Social Agency, to the position formerly held by Monsignor Gerald Gobitas, diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr said.
Gobitas, the former pastor of St. Jane Frances de Chantal in Palmer Township, will continue to serve as secretary for clergy.
Murphy has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed social worker. She is the first lay person to hold the position, Kerr said.
The bishops’ charter states that the review board must include at least five Catholics not employed by the diocese.
One member should be an experienced and respected priest of the diocese and another should specialize in the treatment of sexual abuse of minors, according to the charter. The members will be appointed to renewable five-year terms.
Members hail from the five counties: Berks, Carbon, Lehigh, Northampton and Schuylkill represented by the Diocese of Allentown.
O’Connor, who has 12 offices in the state, has been involved in about a dozen sexual abuse cases, he said. The Frackville resident was a public defender in Schuylkill County for four years and has been in private practice for 15 years.
In its fact-finding capacity, the board will act as an investigator would in a criminal case, O’Connor said.
Board members were chosen based on recommendations of priests in parishes in the five-county region. O’Connor has three children and belongs to St. Anne’s Catholic Church.
Another local member, Dr. Eugene Decker, lives in the Bethlehem area, practices in Phillipsburg and has been an expert prosecution witness in child sexual abuse cases.
According to the charter, the board will advise the bishop in his “assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and in his determination of suitability for ministry.”
Other duties will include revising diocesan policies for dealing with sexual abuse of minors and offering advice on aspects of these cases, the charter states.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the charter on June 14, 2002, and revised it on Dec. 8, 2002. Later this month, the bishops will outline rules governing the review board — such as how often it should convene.
In May, the Diocese of Allentown disclosed to prosecutors in its five-county region 23 reports of sexual misconduct by priests in the 41 years since the Catholic body was formed.
Northampton and Lehigh counties’ district attorneys said none of the allegations resulted in criminal charges either because the priests are dead, victims could not be located or the statute of limitations had expired.