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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops’ charter

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Transmitted on 06/04/2004 2:27 PM ET

'Zero tolerance' is controversial cornerstone of sex abuse policy

Catholic News Service

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A controversial cornerstone of the U.S. bishops' policies to prevent child sex abuse is the permanent removal from ministry of any priest or deacon who has committed at least one act of child sex abuse.

The policy has strong support among victims' groups as a sign that the church is serious about protecting children, but has been received less warmly by some priests and canon lawyers who are critical of the idea of having one penalty for a wide range of sex abuse activities.

Known as the "zero tolerance" or the "one-strike-you're-out" policy, it is based on a 2002 statement made by Pope John Paul II to a group of U.S. church leaders that "there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young."

The U.S. bishops are expected to discuss zero tolerance in November as part of their required two-year review of their sex abuse policies as contained in the 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." It may also come under preliminary conversation when the bishops meet June 14-19 in Denver for a special assembly.

Already the zero tolerance policy has generated public debate.

For Msgr. William Varvaro, a canon lawyer who is defending several priests accused of sex abuse, "there is a big difference between raping a 12-year-old and fondling a 12-year-old" and punishment should reflect the difference.

"Returning an abuser to the same culture and climate that allowed abuse to occur is a terrifying idea," said Susan Archibald, president of The Linkup, an organization for victims of child sex abuse. "The message it sends is that we are allowing an abuser to remain in the honorable position of a priest."

Father Stephen Rossetti, who heads a treatment center for priests with sex abuse offenses and other psychological problems, said "it's not a black-and-white decision" regarding the future of zero tolerance.

The priest is president and chief executive officer of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

"Many people have not seen how complex the issue is," he said, with discussion marked more by argument than dialogue.

Father Rossetti said any solution has to balance justice for the individual accused against protecting the integrity of the church's ministry and its public trust.

It also has to regard protecting children as the primary need, he said.

But to protect children, an offender needs treatment, supervised living conditions and no opportunity for contact with children, he said.

This is true whether or not the priest remains in church life, said Father Rossetti.

Throwing a priest out of church ministry and sending him into the general society without proper treatment or supervision is not a good way to prevent child abuse, he said.

"Zero tolerance is not safer for a child in society. It's safer for a child in the church," said Father Rossetti.

His overall criticism of the bishops' policies is that under the charter, the bishops have opted for a "legalistic approach" to solving the problem by calling into play church laws allowing dismissal from permanent ministry.

This discourages priests accused of sex abuse from seeking treatment because if they don't want to be thrown out of ministry they have to fight the accusation on legal grounds, he said.

Prior to this, many bishops preferred a "clinical approach" which relied on efforts to treat offenders as the preferred solution to the problem, with the possibility of returning to ministry, he said.

Father Rossetti said a survey of priests treated at his institution showed a relapse rate of 5 percent.

Several organizations working to prevent child sex abuse in society in general report that the relapse rate of child abusers is less than that of other sex offenders.

One argument for ending zero tolerance is that there are cases of priests who abused once but never again over decades of ministry.

"There is real concern as to whether they were pedophiles or just young, inexperienced men who engaged in exploratory behavior," said Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

Father Silva and Msgr. Varvaro agreed that there are some cases where the crime is so grave that laicization -- removing a priest from permanent ministry by returning him to the lay state -- is appropriate.

But in other cases where people need treatment, "do we laicize or do we think of creative ways of oversight and ways to help them engage in productive work that is not priestly work?" said Father Silva.

"Priests have been grappling with this for two years. I don't think anyone has come up with a satisfactory answer," Father Silva said.

The National Federation of Priests' Councils is an umbrella group composed of 124 diocesan councils representing 25,000 priests, more than 80 percent of the diocesan priests in the United States.

Msgr. Varvaro said canon lawyers point out that a common aspect of criminal law is graduated punishments for different degrees of crimes. Another worry is that there may be extenuating circumstances surrounding the abuse, such as whether the offender was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that need to be known in assessing punishment, he said.

Msgr. Varvaro said it would be possible for an offender to remain in a form of ministry that does not involve contact with children such as working in a publishing house.

Religious orders in the United States have developed programs in which they take offenders out of active ministry but keep them as members of the religious community in isolated, supervised living conditions. These offenders are given jobs such as administrative tasks that do not involve contact with children or parishes.

A defender of zero tolerance is Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles who said the church cannot take any chance that a clergyman would abuse again. He said his archdiocese has had several cases in which it was thought priests had not abused again only to find out that other offenses occurred.

Also defending the policy is David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"One size fits all when a drunken driver weaves down streets," said Clohessy.

"No one can be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "Thousands of kids have been abused by priests whose supervisors told police and parents that they were keeping an eye on them."


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