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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 12/15/2003 3:22 PM ET

Reading people their rights: Dioceses probe sex abuse cases

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- John Brennan talks more like a police officer than a permanent deacon as he ticks off how his job with the Diocese of Portland, Maine, involves reading people their rights.

Actually, he's both. Deacon Brennan is the diocese's top cop for investigating allegations of clergy sex abuse of minors. Prior to his 1998 ordination to the diaconate, he was Portland's deputy police chief.

So, during his clerical probes, Deacon Brennan tells people they have the right to not incriminate themselves, to be represented by a civil attorney and a church lawyer, to know the nature of the accusations and to due process.

"It reads like the Miranda warnings," he said, referring to the statement police read suspects when taking them into custody.

In keeping with U.S. bishops' policies and norms approved by the Vatican in 2002, dioceses across the country are putting into place procedures for investigating allegations of clergy misconduct. They also have established local review boards to advise their bishop confidentially on actions to take regarding accused priests, including permanent removal from the priesthood.

Another part of the boards' task is to advise the bishop on overall policies to prevent further abuse.

Deacon Brennan is director of the Office of Professional Responsibility working directly under Portland Bishop Joseph J. Gerry.

"In the wake of the sex abuse scandal, the bishop asked me to do the investigations given my background," said Deacon Brennan, who was a pastoral associate in two parishes before being given the investigative post in June 2002.

Deacon Brennan is not a member of the diocesan review board but all his reports go directly to the board for study.

Catholic News Service interviews with church officials showed that investigative procedures and review board operations differ from diocese to diocese.

The common denominator is that dioceses now have clearly stated procedures for responding to and judging all allegations received. They also have review boards composed mostly of lay people offering a wide variety of legal, investigative, psychological, psychiatric and sociological advice to local bishops.

Important in the process is that the investigative procedures and review board operations are impartial and independent, said church officials.

To this effect many dioceses use outside contractors as investigators and as the initial contact people for victims wanting to report an abuse. The bishops' national norms establish that a majority of the review board members be lay people not employed by the diocese.

Deacon Brennan, who works full time for the Portland Diocese, said that Bishop Gerry has given him complete independence.

"Many people distrust an internal investigation. It won't work unless the investigator has complete autonomy," said Deacon Brennan.

Barbara Anne Cusack, chancellor of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, prefers to use outside contractors.

"It lends credibility that people (investigators) are not relying on the church for a livelihood. It's seen as more neutral," she said.

The U.S. bishops' policy as spelled out in the 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" requires dioceses and their Eastern-rite counterpart eparchies to have "mechanisms in place to respond promptly" to allegations of clergy sex abuse of minors. They must also have "a competent person or persons" to coordinate assistance and pastoral care for people who say they were abused.

A national audit commissioned by the bishops on how well dioceses are complying with the charter is scheduled for release Jan. 6.

The charter requires church officials to cooperate with civil authorities in the reporting and investigating of abuse allegations. Local civil laws in many states now require church officials to report any allegations to law enforcement agencies. Church officials told CNS that they also encourage accusers who have not done so to go to the police.

Many dioceses let civil authorities do the initial investigations rather than run the risk of interfering by conducting a simultaneous probe.

"You can muck it up if you move in too quickly," said Judge Michael Talbot of the Michigan Court of Appeals, chairman of the Detroit archdiocesan review board.

In return, police and prosecutors turn over information from their investigations to the board, said Talbot.

The Detroit review board then uses a private investigator to fill in any gaps, he said.

The New York Archdiocese has an arrangement in which it lets the 10 district attorney offices located in the area covered by archdiocese know of any allegations it receives and, in turn, receives any allegations against clergy presented to civil authorities, said Joseph Zwilling, archdiocesan spokesman.

Zwilling added that even where the statute of limitations has expired, civil authorities will ask the archdiocese to hold off until police check to make sure no current youths are at risk if the accused still lives in the area.

For former deputy police chief Brennan in Portland, however, it is possible for the church to simultaneously investigate. This is necessary when cases are in litigation and the diocese needs to know the key facts but the police cannot legally turn over their files, he said.

The diocese also needs to investigate to see if church law has been violated, added Deacon Brennan.

"But we would defer if police thought any simultaneous investigation would interfere with or impede theirs," he said.

Filing an accusation with church officials is as easy as picking up a telephone or going on the Internet. Many diocesan Web sites include forms for filing complaints -- often in several languages -- that can be sent online or printed out and mailed in. Also displayed are hotline telephone numbers.

The difficulty, said church officials, is the emotional and psychological reluctance of many victims to approach a church organization.

"Most of the time we learn of an allegation through a civil lawsuit," said Mary Ross Agosta, Miami archdiocesan spokeswoman. As 2003 was coming to an end, the archdiocese was faced with 26 outstanding civil lawsuits and prosecutors were examining some recent allegations for possible criminal charges, she said.

Because of victim reluctance, many dioceses contract a third party or a nonchurch organization that specializes in dealing with victims to act as bridges to the diocese.

Deacon Brennan said he often uses an intermediary to initially contact a victim who has made an accusation before setting up his own interview.

Even after the bridge has been crossed, trained church staffers are needed to work with victims.

"You have to listen with the ear of the heart," said Phyllis Willerscheidt, director of advocacy for the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese. Her office is responsible for dealing with victims.

"You have to hear the words behind what they are saying," she said.

"I also help them understand church jargon," she added.

Victims often misunderstand church terminology and legalisms, which sound cold and bureaucratic to them, said Willerscheidt.

William Fallon, St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocesan chancellor, said that his review board is currently examining the case of every living priest who has been accused.

In some cases, it is the second time a priest has had his case reviewed by church officials, he said, although it's the first time it has been examined by the review board established in 2002.

No case involves events after 1988, said Fallon, who is not a board member but works with the board.

Fallon described some of the pending cases to show the complexity of the board's task.

In one, there is credible evidence against the accused but the priest is denying the accusation, said Fallon.

Another is "a gray-area case" where the accuser is not sure if what happened to him was abuse, but has come forward to make people aware of what took place in case there are other accusations against the same priest, said Fallon.

On Dec. 10, the archdiocese announced that it had received credible allegations of child sex abuse against 33 priests, involving 69 minors, over the past 50 years.


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