Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

November 7, 2007


After the clergy sex abuse crisis exploded in the spring of 2002, our US bishops met in June and published their "Dallas Charter" to deal with the fallout of the scandal and to insure the safety of young people. The Charter looked ahead, providing measures to investigate and respond to allegations or indications of abuse. It called for openness in the processes establshed and involvement of the laity in Diocesan Review Boards and in a National Review Board of distinguished Catholics, appointed by the bishops. This NRB established further requirements, including periodic audits of dioceses, to provide oversight to insure compliance by the bishops of the protective measures. The Charter also looked to the past, to find past priest-abusers for punishment and to remove them from further opportunites for abuse.

In its "looking ahead" role, the Charter called on dioceses to establish their own programs of child-protection. In the NY Archdiocese, the clergy are periodically called together to increase awareness of the abuse problem and to acquaint them with the professional services utilized to respond to the problem. Cardinal Egan called for such an assemblage of clergy. It was held last September 17th. The "looking ahead" measures were described at length and effectively by a professional in the field, by an archdiocesan attorney and other staff, and by Cardinal Egan.

Although the meeting dealt with the "looking ahead" protection measures, I had asked
for an opportunity to say a brief word on the "looking back" aspect - the removal of priests guilty of abuse in the past. In my post of last May 21 on this blog, I mentioned the case of a priest friend out West. Last November, he had been precipitously removed from his three parishes and sent to a clinic for psychological evaluation. He was not told the nature of the allegation nor did he appear before his Archdiocesan Review Board or have any knowledge of its having reviewed his case. After a period of some months, he returned to his archdiocese. His archbishop said that he would retire him with pay. He regretted that he had to do this, because no other allegation had ever been made against him and the archbishop knew him to have been an excellent priest. But, he said, he had to follow the Dallas Charter. My friend took a job as check-out clerk at Walmart's.

As a friend and as a canonist, I was appalled. There was surely a canonical case here. My friend said he did not want to take that step, since it would antagonize his archbishop. I agreed, saying that priests here, generally, had little or no confidence in the system. A NY priest here had been removed from ministry and, with a canonist, instituted a formal canonical proceeding. I am not sure of the details, but the case had proceedings here, was sent to Rome, was then sent to the Erie, PA diocese, which to all appearences completed it. But no decision has been publicly declared. This is five years since the action was started!

I wrote a respectful letter to his archbishop, pointing out that the Dallas Charter, on which he based his action, has been severely criticized by Cardinal Avery Dulles and various prominent canonists. My friend admits the charge that he kissed a sixth grade boy in a family, with which he was friendly. He claims the kiss was one of affection, not sexual. However that may be, the priest has a presumption of innocence. It was twenty-three years ago. There is no possible way to establish that the kiss was sexual. The boy's single mother wanted my friend to leave the priesthood and marry her! That's the background of the allegation. Furthermore, punishment must fit the crime. This single kiss twenty-three years ago surely cannot be given the same punishment as that for serial rapes! I also pointed out that the "one strike, you're out" principle is not acceptable. In addition, the Charter provides no definition of sexual abuse. It is a vague "catch-all" designation.

In my correspondence with the archbishop, I said that my friend was devastated. His priesthood was a part of his personality. To be removed from it was an enormous blow.

The latest word: My friend advised me that the archbishop had brought him in, said that he regretted his action, and that he wanted to restore him to ministry!
How? When? My friend is still at the check-out counter. The archbishop asked him to be patient! How will his good name ever be restored?

With all this in mind, at the end of the September 21 meeting, I was given the microphone. In view of the lateness of the hour, with no mention of my friend's case, I briefly mentioned the deficiency of the Dallas Charter in its failure to protect priests on the issue of proportionality, on "one strike, you're out",and elimination of the canonical statute of limitations. I pointed to Cardinal Dulles' call for a revision of the Charter because of these defects. As I finished my brief remarks, I turned, I saw that Cardinal Egan had taken the podium and, unbeknown to me, had urged me to stop. I simply did not hear him. I was grateful that I had called attention to this deficiency in the Charter. Subsequently, I received numerous calls and letters of thanks for bringing up this issue of the rights of priests.


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