LONDON — When Father Dominic McKenna suddenly disappeared one day during Lent 2005 from Our Lady of Hal church in Camden Town, London, parishioners were baffled.

And they were stunned when it emerged that the popular priest was under police investigation over allegations of sexual abuse 30 years earlier.

Father McKenna, who was well known for his work with drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless, was alleged to have committed gross indecency while he was working as a teacher before he became a priest. The man who brought the allegation claimed it had happened when he was 12.

Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster suspended Father McKenna, 54, and put him on administrative leave. He was placed in a secret address.

This August, the police dropped the charges. However, Father McKenna has still not returned to his parish. He is currently undergoing a “risk assessment” by the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, which last year investigated 40 clergy accused of abuse.

This policy for handling allegations of priestly sexual abuse was one of the 83 recommendations made in the 2001 report “A Program for Action: Final Report of the Independent Review on Child Protection in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.”

The report, produced by an independent committee headed by Lord Michael Nolan, states “the absence of criminal conviction is not by itself a sufficient guarantee of suitability for any particular kind of Church work.”

Speaking about his ordeal, Father McKenna said, “When I was removed from the parish, I expected a call from the police at any moment. They didn’t call me till six months later. Mothers were trying to explain to their kids why I was not there and telling them things they shouldn’t know about at their age.”

Said Father McKenna, “When you are longer and longer away from public ministry, you start to wonder how people see you. It erodes your self-confidence. Every time I appeared in court it was a tremendous strain.”

The case of Father McKenna highlights a growing unease among many priests about how the Nolan report’s recommendations are being implemented in dioceses.

At this year’s meeting of the National Conference of Priests of England and Wales in Leeds, many priests voiced concern that the recommendations left them with little protection if accused of sexual abuse.

Since 2003 the priests’ conference has been asking the bishops for guidelines on procedures for priests facing such allegations. While the bishops have discussed the issue, they have yet to respond.

Referring to the report, Father Paul Bruxby, a canon lawyer in the diocese of Brentwood, told conference delegates that “a line had been crossed” and it was now time to speak out.

Father Bruxby said everyone who is accused of an offense, criminal or disciplinary, has the right to a defense. But instead, Father Bruxby said, “it is now common knowledge that all some disgruntled person has to do is accuse a priest, and his life is effectively destroyed.”

Father Bruxby said the burden of proof has been reversed.

“In the Church in England and Wales, which preaches justice in season and out, a man is no longer innocent until proven guilty but guilty until proven innocent,” he said.

Added Father Bruxby, “As often happens when it is discovered that something is seriously wrong with a system, the pendulum swings violently in the opposite direction. This means that where in the past, priests accused of abuse were moved or sent on sabbaticals, they are now — no matter how slight the evidence — visited not only with the full force of the law but an interpretation of the law which is often incorrect.”

Father Bruxby argued that the bishops of England and Wales are in breach of canon law when they place priests on administrative leave before a judicial process has begun, and for requiring those accused to undergo risk assessments before being returned to ministry.

And Father Bruxby criticized diocesan child protection commissions as a network of “quasi-judicial” agencies that are “accountable to no one and from whose decisions there is no appeal locally.” The system set up under Nolan was “fatally flawed,” he said, and should be changed immediately.

Archbishop Nichols

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, chairman of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, said that the bishops’ conference of England and Wales is working closely with the Vatican in implementing the report’s recommendations.

The archbishop said that every case that is handled by local bishops now has to be referred as well to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Church, he emphasized, must operate within a legal system that says that the well-being and protection of children comes before any other consideration.

“If we could be shown not to have taken a reasonable action, then somebody would be criminally liable,” Archbishop Nichols said. “We are not a regulated body, but that is one of the things that has been called for by some, which would then mean that the procedures we operate would not be at our discretion at all.”

He said he was frustrated by the length of time it took the police to investigate accusations against priests of sexual abuse, citing Father McKenna’s experience as an example.

Earlier this year, the bishops set up the Cumberlege Commission to review the implementation of the Nolan recommendations and examine the role of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.

The National Conference of Priests of England and Wales will soon make its oral submissions to the commission, which is scheduled to release its conclusions next spring.

Avoid Division

Benedictine Father Godric Timney, a former chairman of the priests’ conference, has warned against opening divisions between clergy and bishops.

“We’re concerned about the many anxieties many of our fellow priests have, and perhaps we ourselves have, because every priest is vulnerable if accused,” he said.

“We don’t want to be at loggerheads with the bishops,” Father Timney said. “This is happening in the United States and we must avoid that. At the same time, we must be truthful and just.”

Greg Watts writes

from London.