The Helena Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church has implemented a policy to deal with allegations of clerical sex abuse immediately and with zero tolerance.
“As Catholics, we need to take this as serious as a heart attack,” Diocese Chancellor Kevin Phelan said. “We’ve recommitted ourselves to making sure that this never happens again.”
The new policy took effect Sunday in the diocese, which covers western Montana.
Last June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ordered all 195 dioceses across the country to adopt strict policies to deal with church employees or volunteers who are accused of sexual misconduct.
The bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” was a response to hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by priests and transfers by bishops of priests who were known pedophiles. Nine dioceses across the nation have paid $137 million in settlements to people who have accused priests and church employees of child sexual abuse.
The charter calls for a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual abuse by church employees and volunteers, victim counseling at a diocese’s expense for past abuse, and “safe environment” training for employees to ensure kids are protected.
Phelan said the Helena Diocese has had a sexual misconduct policy in place since 1993, and only had to change some language within it to comply with the mandate. Now, penalties that were left to the discretion of the bishop are mandated by policy.
“For even one incident, either proven or admitted, the priest is no longer able to function as a Catholic priest,” Phelan said.
The bishops’ group announced it would audit every diocese starting late this month to ensure they had adopted policies and were aggressively enforcing them.
The new policy doesn’t mean that a priest won’t do something as benign as giving a kid a hug, said the Rev. Leo Proxell of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Bozeman. Rather, it was an effort by the diocese to say very openly that sexual abuse is a crime and a sin and won’t be tolerated at all.