WASHINGTON —  In 2002, the U.S. bishops’ groundbreaking “zero tolerance” policy for clerical perpetrators won broad support, but the new era of aggressive accountability has made it tough for accused priests that have been cleared of abuse charges and seek to return to parish work.

Fresh allegations of abuse and curial negligence, incomplete media coverage of new and historical cases, the difficulty of establishing guilt, the drumbeat of outrage from victims’ rights groups, and ongoing financial settlements have led the public, and some Church leaders, to question whether any priest linked to a “credible allegation” — whatever the outcome of subsequent investigations — should be allowed further access to children.

While Church law and the criminal justice system stipulate that the accused are “innocent until proven guilty,” media coverage of last week’s clergy abuse scandals in Philadelphia and Los Angeles gives credence to an opposing principle: The accused are guilty until proven innocent.

In Los Angeles, a priest who was a pastor and once served on the archdiocesan panel that reviews allegations of clerical abuse has been removed following allegations that he had an extended sexual relationship with a teenage girl and is a self-identified “sex addict.” The archdiocese’s vicar of clergy has resigned amid charges that he appointed the priest despite his record of abuse.

In Philadelphia, a two-year grand jury investigation into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s handling of clergy abuse cases led local authorities to charge two priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher with raping young boys, while a former archdiocesan official was accused of transferring priests with prior abuse complaints without alerting the public. Some of the accused were linked to previous abuse cases.

“At least 37 priests accused of molestation and other inappropriate behavior toward children have been allowed to remain in active ministry,” stated a Feb. 13 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the grand jury report.

Media coverage of the grand jury report did not generally distinguish between priests that had been cleared of charges, those awaiting a resolution to criminal or diocesan investigations, and those actually found to have abused minors.

One news story stated that “37 accused priests in the archdiocese work in assignments that put them near children while complaints are investigated or, in some cases, deemed not credible, the grand jury found.” Some stories employed terms like “pedophile” and “substantial evidence of abuse” interchangeably — without clarifying that “substantial evidence” merely triggers an investigation, but does not confirm actual guilt.

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia vowed to carefully review the grand jury’s findings and make further changes if necessary. But he also insisted in a statement that there are “no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them.” The archdiocese declined to respond to questions for this story.

Members of Philadelphia’s archdiocesan review board challenged the findings of the grand jury, which suggested the review board had set aside or missed “very convincing evidence” of wrongdoing. The report noted that in two cases, two accused priests remained in their positions despite failing a lie detector test, while another priest provided “evasive answers” during an investigation.

The review board members said they had scrutinized evidence in more than 50 cases since 2003, and, for the most part, had recommended that the accused be removed from active ministry — a stance backed by archdiocesan officials. But board members also contended that some allegations lacked sufficient evidence to justify permanent removal.

No Uniform Process

Under canon law, a cleric is entitled to protection of his good reputation and restoration if it is damaged. In addition, an accused priest or deacon who is not laicized is entitled to decent financial support from his diocese or religious order.

Yet amid the glare of headlines marking another round of clergy abuse scandals, canon lawyers and various groups that defend the rights of accused priests contend that their clients don’t always obtain justice. Part of the problem is that the Dallas Charter did not precisely define what constitutes sexual abuse, and priests have limited options for appealing decisions.

“This is detrimental to the morale of the priesthood: One accusation and you’re done,” contended Father Michael Maginot, a canon lawyer and the pastor of St. Stephen Martyr in Merrillville, Ind. Father Maginot has represented many accused priests.

Whatever the limitations of the Dallas Charter, the U.S. bishops have sought to regain credibility by adhering to the zero tolerance policy and related guidelines, from fingerprinting of all volunteers in contact with children to immediate communication of abuse allegations to local law enforcement.

However, there remains no uniform practice for dealing with priests that have been formally cleared of charges. In many dioceses, the return of these priests to active ministry is less common than “retirement” in good standing.

Off the record, some canon lawyers say dioceses are slow to return the accused to parish life because of fears that a second allegation might surface, prompting stiffer criminal and civil penalties for institutions that approved the reinstatement.

Indeed, groups like Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) aggressively challenge the dismissal of abuse charges — even in a court of law. David Clohessy, SNAP’s executive director, defends the group’s relentless targeting of accused priests as a necessary precaution .

Legal and Moral Minefield

Historically, false allegations of abuse have been rare. In the five decades preceding the 2002 clergy abuse crisis, just 1.5% of all sex abuse allegations against U.S. priests were determined to be “false.”

Mary Jane Doerr, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Child and Youth Protection, reports that “there are a handful of false accusations every year.” In recent years, there has been a rise in false allegations, in part, she suggested, as a result of heightened awareness of child sex abuse and the “grooming” process used by sexual predators.

“Current allegations involving children who are or have been abused are sometimes boundary violations — hugging or petting on the head that might creep the kid out,” Doerr noted.

“We have two categories: historical cases and new allegations. In 2009, 286 priests were alleged to have abused kids [in the past]. Out of that number, a handful of allegations could not be proved. In contrast, in 2009, we received 21 allegations from current minors — children today that say they are or have been sexually abused. Six were deemed credible,” Doerr said.

Paul Danello, a Washington, D.C.-based canon lawyer and civil lawyer, also acknowledges that bishops face a legal and moral minefield when they consider returning priests to ministry — whatever the outcome of criminal trials or a canonical legal process that does not result in the imposition of a penalty.

“Even though a priest or deacon is not proven to have abused minors, other issues surrounding his ministry or behavior might have arisen during the investigation that cause concern for the bishop. This might involve unacceptable boundary violations or improper behavior with adults, i.e., homosexual or heterosexual relationships or pornography use. These situations would need to be addressed before the priest or deacon is returned to public ministry,” Danello said.

Such concerns may never surface publicly, in part because of privacy considerations. But critics suggest that damage control and the wages of past neglect by bishops have discouraged transparency on such matters, leaving the reputation of innocent priests irreparably shattered.

Now, as the Los Angeles and Philadelphia archdioceses confront new charges alleging that their internal review process was seriously deficient and permitted known abusers to return to active ministry, the drumbeat for reform could prompt a further reassessment of the limitations — as well as the strengths — of the Dallas Charter.

Yet these new revelations underscore the stubborn truth: The foundation of a diocese’s zero tolerance policy will remain vulnerable to human error, as well as outright negligence.

“We’ve worked hard to create a culture in which the protection of children is our priority up to the top of the archdiocese,” said Los Angeles archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg. “The vicar of clergy received a falsified report from the priest’s order stating that there was no prior history of abuse. He did not check our own records, which included the priest’s admission of a past relationship with a teenage girl. That’s inexcusable, and he resigned.”

Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.