Bishops recommend ‘zero tolerance’ policy for priests with proven cases of sexual abuse with minors
During a discussion April 29 the bishops of the Province of Atlanta recommended a policy of “zero-tolerance” regarding priests who have a confirmed or proven allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor child.
The bishops of the province have defined “zero tolerance” as a commitment that the church and her institutions will be a safe environment for children and young people and that no priest will remain in any ministry who is a danger to them.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue, who holds the ex officio title of metropolitan archbishop of the Province of Atlanta, released this statement following a discussion among the bishops of the province that includes the prelates of Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., and Charleston this Monday.
During the discussion the bishops were asked to discuss 14 proposals involving the reassignment to ministry, reporting of allegations and accountability. Their responses were to be faxed to Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, so the responses could be reviewed before the general meeting of the full body of bishops in Dallas, June 13-15.
The following bishops voiced their concerns and provided Archbishop Donoghue with feedback: Bishop Robert J. Baker of Charleston; Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah; Bishop F. Joseph Gossman of Raleigh; and Bishop William G. Curlin of Charlotte.
“In the past, the people of God have been unnecessarily wounded,” said Archbishop Donoghue. “Therefore we will unanimously recommend to the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse that they endorse our recommendation that we believe will prevent priests with proven allegations of sexual misconduct with minors from ever functioning in any form of ministry again. We recognize that our words may not be well received because of a lack of trust in the hierarchy of the church; therefore, we pray that our actions and our recommendations today send a clear message of our commitment to the faithful.”
“We need families to know that if their child has been abused, that is one child too many,” said Bishop Baker. “Once an allegation is proven we will act swiftly to prevent it from ever occurring again. We will never knowingly put a child in harm’s way. This is our commitment to the people of God from their bishops.”
The bishops made it clear that their recommendation includes all past, present and future cases involving proven cases of sexual abuse with minors in any area of priestly ministry.
The bishops also restated their commitment to follow state laws unique to each diocese regarding the reporting of all past, present and future allegations with minors. If a minor or the parent of a minor reports that a child has been sexually abused, local church authorities will immediately report such allegations to the appropriate public authorities.
Among other items the bishops unanimously recommended the following:
l No priest should ever be reassigned to any ministry after an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor has been confirmed or proven.
l Each bishop and diocese should recommit itself to following state laws regarding the reporting of such allegations.
l It is recommended that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops create a uniform policy regarding the sexual misconduct of priests with minors.
l The adoption of “zero tolerance” and full reporting policies by even a few dioceses requires the full conference of bishops to do the same.
l All bishops should commit themselves publicly to be accountable to each other and to the faithful for the proper implementation of policies regarding sexual misconduct.
l Vatican acknowledgement of a national strategy for accountability is both necessary and desirable.
During the discussion the bishops expressed the following concerns that they wish to examine before or at the June meeting:
l An appeals process for priests who have been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor;
l A well-defined, step-by-step procedure should be established by which an accused priest would be removed from service that protects both the rights of the alleged perpetrator and victim. Any recommended policy must ensure that the process is fair and definitive for all parties involved.
l If a priest is found guilty of a crime of sexual misconduct with a minor by public authorities, a shortened Vatican administrative process for laicization (permanent release from vows) would be desirable.
“We will deal with those issues in which the law has been broken with full disclosure,” said Bishop Boland. “Church authoriies will offer pastoral assistance along the way to the victims and their families.”
“We want to respect the right to privacy of the victim,” said Bishop Gossman. “Often victims come forward asking that the family or child’s name be withheld. We will recommend that the committee also consider this point when setting its final policy.”
Throughout the dialogue the bishops reflected upon the need to continue to provide pastoral and spiritual support for victims of sexual misconduct.
“Since we know that child abuse has a ripple affect, we must remember to pray for the victims of this heinous act, their families and the universal church as we attempt to heal,” Bishop Curlin said. “We must remind ourselves that these problems did not occur overnight, and therefore cannot be solved overnight. We commend the cardinals on making their first step. Our recommendation is another; the meeting in Dallas will be the next step.”
Finally, the bishops of the province asked for prayers from the faithful of their dioceses.
“We ask that the faithful pray to the Holy Spirit that all bishops receive his gifts of wisdom, understanding, fortitude and compassion as they attempt to make policies which will guide the church for years to come,” Bishop Baker concluded.
“These are our recommendations,” Archbishop Donoghue said. “Even though we will present them, we recognize they may not be accepted as submitted. This is simply another step in the refining process. In the end each of us has agreed to adhere to the directives and mandates of the Vatican when and if a national policy is developed.”