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

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

May 21, 2007

Due Process for Accused Priests

The fallout of the sexual abuse crisis that has engulfed our Church continues: First, children became victims of continuing abuse caused by the policies of some bishops of secretly transferring miscreant priests. Many of those bishops have been found legally liable, resulting around the country in settlements and court decisions totaling roughly $ 1 billion.

A new factor now further undermines confidence in operations of the hierarchy: the judicial and administrative processes – or the lack thereof – in dealing with priests facing “credible allegations” of molestation. Cardinal Avery Dulles criticized (“America” June 21, 2004) the US bishops’ Dallas Charter of June 2002 because it neglected to adequately protect the rights of accused priests. A chief criticism dealt with the Charter’s lack of precise definition of sexual abuse and its ignoring of different degrees of gravity. It could mean anything from a gentle shoulder caress to serial rape.

In both civil and church matters, the safety of society must be protected while guaranteeing the rights of individual and the presumption of innocence. A proper balance is not easily obtained. A police officer facing a serious charge can be suspended until a through investigation is completed and he is either exonerated or duly punished. If exonerated, his good name can generally be adequately restored. If a priest is removed from ministry after a “credible allegation “ (Of precisely what? And of what gravity?) and it is decided that a single caress of a shoulder does not constitute a “grave” offense or that the allegation was, indeed, not credible, the priest may be returned to ministry. But what can be done to restore his good name after an allegation has been somehow endorsed by removal from ministry? The bishops’ own National Review Board, in their report (February 2004) pointed out the obligation of bishops to take effective steps to restore the good name of the exonerated priest.

Five years have passed since the Dallas Charter was established. Bishops have been conducting – or failing to conduct – the administrative hearings and the removal priests from ministry. Complaints have arisen that accused priests have not been accorded the due processes of investigation before a final judgment was made. Father Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and author of several books on the crisis, had this to say: “I feel the bishops made the same mistake twice. They put the welfare of the institution ahead of the safety of young people…In Dallas ( the June 2002, Charter), they did the same thing: they put the welfare of the institution ahead of the welfare of their priests.” Priests, canon lawyers, and others involved with the accused seem to have little confidence in the fairness of the procedures hastily put together by the bishops in Dallas.

I recently heard from a priest friend of mine from a diocese far west of the Hudson River. He was summoned last October to meet with his bishop and his Vicar General. The VG told him that he was being retired from his three parishes and being sent to St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, MD for evaluation because of a credible allegation of child molestation, the nature of which was not disclosed to him by the VG. He could avail himself of the services of a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer. The allegation had been made by a phone call from the wife of the alleged “victim”. The diocese had followed it up with a phone call to the subject individual. It is not clear whether anything further was done by way of investigation. The Diocesan Review Board was not advised of the allegation until sometime after his removal. My friend had not been called in to respond to the allegation prior to his removal. He was first told the nature of the alleged incident after two weeks at St. Luke’s. It was his therapist who informed him.

Letters were sent by the diocese to his three parishes: an announcement was to be made at the Sunday Masses that their pastor had been removed because of a credible allegation of a sexual impropriety. Since his removal the parishioners have voiced their confidence in their pastor and their anger at the apparent lack of proper process. My friend, who admits to a small gesture of affection, denies that it could be perceived as a “grave offense”. He is devastated by his removal, especially without any participation and judgment by the Diocesan Review Board as to the gravity of the incident and the credibility of the allegation.

My friend awaits further developments, having little confidence in the working of the system.