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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 12/15/2003 3:56 PM ET

Review boards seek neutrality, independence on sex abuse issues

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Judge Michael Talbot of the Michigan Court of Appeals wants his expertise, independence and credibility to help the church resolve the clergy sex abuse crisis.

"As every layperson who came to learn of the scandal, I was shocked and hurt and sad for the church," he said in explaining why he agreed to be chairman of the Detroit archdiocesan review board that advises on actions to take against accused priests and on overall polices to prevent abuse.

"I had the background," said Talbot of his 20 years as a trial judge before being appointed to the appeals court in 1998.

"This work had to be done," he told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.

Talbot is one of hundreds of volunteers with a wide variety of expertise being tapped by dioceses across the country to become part of local review boards. They are experts in crime fighting and in dealing with the emotional, psychological and spiritual fallout of clergy sex abuse of minors.

Several boards also include victims of clergy sex abuse, although having victims on boards has produced mixed results. Some church officials said they can bring too much of their personal pain into the deliberations while others said victims provided a unique perspective and sensitivity to the issue.

Talbot said the Detroit board so far has recommended placing four priests on administrative leave and the recommendations have been followed by Detroit Cardinal Adam J. Maida.

Several other priests whose cases have been reviewed decided to voluntarily retire, added the judge.

"The board membership is independent and credible in this community. It's given folks a reason for hope," said Talbot, who is a Catholic, as are all members of the Detroit board.

Across the country, dioceses have incorporated into their boards retired police officers, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, social workers, doctors and nurses.

Review boards are required by the 2002 policies adopted by the U.S. bishops and approved by the Vatican in the aftermath of the sex abuse crisis. These policies are spelled out in the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and the accompanying norms for applying the charter.

The charter states that each board is to advise the bishop on the credibility of allegations, the suitability for ministry of accused priests and on overall diocesan policies for dealing with sex abuse of minors. Final decisions are left to the bishop.

The norms outline minimum conditions for board membership. These include:

-- The board must have at least five persons "in full communion with the church."

-- A majority of the board members must be lay people not employed by the diocese.

-- One member should be a priest who is a respected pastor.

-- At least one member should have expertise in treating sex abuse of minors.

-- Members are chosen for five-year terms.

This gives each bishop wide discretion in choosing the number and professional makeup of board members.

"Some have members of different faiths or religious leaders of other faiths," said Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection.

Basically, members are "talented people volunteering their time," McChesney said.

Some dioceses have opted to keep the names of members secret, citing the need to prevent members from being pressured in their deliberations by partisan interests.

"Most boards release the names. We recommend that, unless there is some security reason that a member or bishop has," McChesney said.

In many dioceses, similar boards were functioning years before the charter was approved and only had to be modified to conform with the new norms.

In the Seattle Archdiocese, the current review board got its start in 1990 as the Blue Ribbon Committee; and procedures for dealing with clergy sex abuse of minors and for formulating policies have been in place since 1985, said Greg Magnoni, archdiocesan communications director.

The current board is composed of two panels: a case review section that studies allegations and another that reviews policies.

Lucy Berliner, an expert in treating sexual assault trauma, has been working with the Seattle archdiocesan clergy sex abuse programs since 1989 and is now on the review board's case review panel.

Berliner, a non-Catholic and director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Trauma Stress at the University of Washington Hospital, favors the church reaching beyond its structures to find able people.

"I was encouraged that the archdiocese wanted to develop better policies," she said. "Institutions need to bring in outside experts."

Berliner added that it is important that dioceses review even cases that may have occurred a long time ago.

"Before going forward, the past has to be addressed. Take care of that and then move to the future," she said.


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