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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 01/13/2004 3:52 PM ET

Religious communities forming sex abuse prevention programs

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The fight to end clergy sex abuse of minors stretches into religious orders and communities as they adapt the U.S. bishops' policies to their special situations.

As part of coordinated efforts, religious leaders have produced a training video that includes interviews with victims of child abuse and hired a national organization to make spot checks on how well religious communities implement prevention programs.

One Franciscan province even hired an ex-probation officer to keep tabs on offenders living in Franciscan communities.

It's all within a framework of seeing the sex abuse crisis as part of the church's constant need for renewal, said Marist Father Ted Keating, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

For many religious communities, it's also a rediscovery of their roots, he said. "Many of our founders were calling us to protect children. This is part of our religious mission."

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, known as CMSM, is an umbrella group for 317 religious communities in the United States and has been authorized by its membership to adapt the U.S. bishops' policies on clergy sex abuse to religious orders and societies.

Major elements of the programs for religious involve:

-- Outreach to victims that involves efforts to reconcile them with leaders of the religious order and the abuser, if possible.

-- Keeping offenders in their religious community, under supervised conditions, rather than dismissing them.

Father Keating and others involved in clergy sex abuse issues discussed their efforts in telephone interviews with Catholic News Service.

There are almost 15,000 religious priests in the United States, about one-third of the U.S. total, according to the 2003 Official Catholic Directory. Father Keating said the programs being developed for religious will also cover the more than 5,000 brothers in the United States.

The Vatican-approved U.S. bishops' policies are contained in the 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and the legally binding "Essential Norms" that accompany the charter. The documents apply to religious orders and societies although adjustments are needed as the policies are geared basically for dioceses.

To help set up programs the Conference of Major Superiors of Men contracted Praesidium, a private company that specializes in child protection programs. Praesidium is drafting plans that include:

-- A system for accrediting religious communities which comply with nationally set safety standards for organizations serving children and mechanisms for monitoring to assure on-going compliance.

-- Safe-environment training programs for religious and their employees which include a video of victims explaining how abuse affected their lives. The video was co-produced with The Linkup, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sex abuse.

-- Supervisory programs, involving unannounced spot checks, for sex offenders living in religious communities.

Religious communities already have done a lot to stave off abuse, especially in seminary screening, said Monica Applewhite, president of Praesidium Religious Services, the Praesidium division setting up the CMSM programs.

"There are very few cases of abuse among people ordained after 1985," she said.

"Seminaries woke up to the issue," and have developed better screening programs than many other groups in the general society, said Applewhite.

"Screening is not just a matter of interviewing people, but of watching how they react to children," she said.

Father Keating defended the decision to keep offenders in religious life while removing them from public ministry.

The bishops' charter encourages dismissal from clerical life as the norm for priests who admit to an offense or who have been judged guilty either in court or after a church inquiry.

Father Keating said that a practical reason for keeping religious in their communities is that religious leaders feel obligated to protect society from future abuses by these men.

There is also the theological perspective of keeping abusers in religious life as part of the continuous religious commitment to conversion, the priest said.

Jobs open to offenders include positions as business managers and librarians in a religious residence and working in ministry in retirement homes for religious, said Father Keating.

In the St. Barbara Franciscan Province, which is based in Oakland, Calif., and covers seven Western states, ministry for offenders also includes working with AIDS victims, said Franciscan Father Mel Jurisich, province head.

The province also hired an ex-probation officer to monitor the more than 10 sex offenders living in the province, said Father Jurisich.

Jesuit Father Philip Steele, executive assistant of the Jesuit Missouri province, which is monitoring several offenders, said that religious orders are already set up for monitoring because they have many residences that are not attached to parishes or schools.

Praesidium's Applewhite said that -- despite difficulties -- "religious orders are ready to contain these people."

She divided offenders into high risk and low risk in terms of setting up supervisory programs.

High-risk abusers are regularly attracted to minors and are likely to be repeat offenders, while low-risk offenders include people not normally attracted to children but in a given situation of extreme stress or emotional imbalance sought escape in sex with a minor, she said.

High-risk offenders need 24-hour supervision, Applewhite said.

They cannot leave their residence alone, cannot have car keys, cannot have access to the Internet and cannot have unsupervised access to minors, she said.

"If a minor enters a room, they are expected to leave," she added.

Part of the supervision is unannounced visits by Praesidium staff to assure compliance, she said.

High-risk individuals are resistant to supervision by nature, said Applewhite.

A low-risk offender would be in active recovery and not have repeated the offense for many years, she said. Such a person would not need 24-hour supervision and giving him work not involving minors could be an effective part of a safety plan, she said.

Applewhite said that low-risk offenders could also be helpful in developing ways of getting others into recovery programs for sex addiction.

Review boards would have a role too in monitoring the situation and making recommendations regarding the success or failure of supervisory programs, she said.

Establishing review boards in each diocese to review prevention policies and to recommend actions to be taken regarding accused priests is part of the bishops' policies.

Father Keating said that religious orders are adapting the review board concept to fit situations where, for example, just two to four members of the same order live in community at a parish where they are serving.

In regions where there are several of these small communities of men religious or where all these small communities combined have few cases involving abuse, there would be a regional board to cover all the communities in that zone, he said, rather than a separate board for each small community.

Communities with a large membership, such as a province of a religious order, would have their own board, said Father Keating.

Review boards are composed in the majority of people not working for the religious order and contain members having expertise in clergy sex abuse issues.

END

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