Zero Tolerance Turmoil: Dioceses' Mixed Results

WASHINGTON — Two months after the U.S. bishops adopted their zero-tolerance policy at a June 14 meeting in Dallas, the strict sex-abuse guidelines have been getting decidedly mixed reviews.

The most important review of all — the Vatican's — is still forthcoming. Rules drawn up by U.S. bishops in June to crack down on sex abuse by priests are still under study by three Vatican congregations, Vatican spokesman Joaquìn Navarro-Valls said Aug. 17 in response to reports that Rome would reject the rules because they do not conform to canon law.

In an Aug. 8-10 meeting in Philadelphia, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which represents 15,000 priests who belong to religious orders, adopted its own plan to keep abusers away from minors. Unlike the Dallas policy, it would not remove abusers from the priest-hood but would assign them to safe ministries because, they said at the meeting, putting them on the streets would only add to the risk to children.

Meanwhile, many U.S. dioceses have already taken steps against priests in conformity to the policy, which vowed to remove from ministry any priest guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, “past, present or future.”

Many of the cases in recent weeks are being cited by supporters of the zero-tolerance policy as a sign that it is working: Two New Jersey priests who were arrested for soliciting young male prostitutes in Montreal come under the strictures of the policy. And the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., removed a pastor after the local district attorney's office said it regarded decades-old accusations against him (by an alleged victim who is now a priest) as credible, although no longer prosecutable.

But other cases are cited as evidence that the zero-tolerance policy's zeal has had unintended bad consequences.

One is the case of Father Francis Perry, a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. During Holy Week, Father Perry was called in to Bishop Joseph Gossman's office to discuss a letter that had been sent to the diocese by a relative of the priest.

Part of letter was true, Father Perry told his bishop. Perry admitted that 41 years ago, when he was 16, he “acted inappropriately” in the presence of a 4-year-old child — a case of indecent exposure. The incident occurred 29 years before Francis Perry — raised as an Episcopalian — converted to the Catholic faith and 37 years before the former psychologist was ordained a priest in 1998.

A month after their meeting, Bishop Gossman put Father Perry on administrative leave and later chose to remove him from all public duties as a priest. Parishioners at St. Joseph Catholic Church, in Burgaw, N.C., and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Wallace, N.C., where Father Perry served as pastor, were outraged.

“Father Perry is simply a great man and a great priest,” said Milton Swinson, a friend of Father Perry's and a lifelong parishioner at Transfiguration. “My Bible says we are supposed to forgive, and I really don't have any problem forgiving some transgression by a teen-ager that took place more than 40 years ago.”

Father Perry, who declines to speak with the press, told Swinson and other parishioners that the incident involved no molestation.

Scared Silent

Families of several fired priests who were removed for questionable, decades-old allegations, declined to speak with the Register. The brother of one popular priest, whose removal shocked and angered the parish, said the family is embarrassed and ashamed, and fears being named in the press.

Similarly, most friends, parishioners and colleagues of Father Perry won't talk, saying they fear being miscast as people who condone the sexual abuse of children. One priest who worked with Father Perry agreed to talk, but asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution.

“He admits to doing something wrong as a teen-ager more than 40 years ago, when he was neither a Catholic nor a priest nor someone even considering the priesthood,” the priest said. “Canonically, however, they're treating him as if he had done something wrong when he was a priest, and there isn't even an allegation that he has done anything wrong since his ordination. There has been absolutely no due process regarding Father Perry, none whatsoever.”

Speaking publicly, Bishop Gossman has explained that he expected anger and hurt feelings about the firing of Father Perry.

However, he said Father Perry was let go because he failed to disclose the old accusation on a form when he enrolled in seminary. Bishop Gossman said his decision also involved the fact that Father Perry did not disclose on his seminary application an arrest, 15 years ago, in which he was charged with taking indecent liberties with a 15-year-old. Father Perry maintains his innocence on that accusation, and it doesn't appear on his record because police dropped charges for lack of evidence and testimony by anyone claiming to be a victim.

Father Michael Higgins, a canon lawyer who heads Justice for Priests and Deacons, said his research indicates that “several hundred” priests have been targeted since bishops adopted the zero-tolerance policy and accompanying norms in Dallas. He says he's concerned that priests are being fired, without the benefits of due process as outlined in canon law, in order to appease an angry public, press and lawyers who are protecting diocesan funds from potential lawsuits.

Father Higgins cited Canon 220 of the Code of Canon Law, which states, “No one is permitted to damage unlawfully the good reputation which another person enjoys nor to violate the right of another person to protect his or her own privacy.” A good reputation, by canon law, is presumed until proven otherwise.

“A suspension is a public act and it injures the good reputation of a priest,” Father Higgins said. “Long before there's a suspension, a priest should be put through a long list of canonical procedures that are designed to prevent unfounded accusations from ruining reputations and careers.”

Cases Mount

Concerns about zero tolerance have no easy answers. The policy has been used to remove priests who most people would consider a danger, and priests who most people would consider harmless.

In Baltimore, about 70 Catholics picketed outside the Archdiocese of Baltimore's headquarters June 26, after learning that Father Thomas Malia had been asked to resign because he once hired someone who had engaged in sexual abuse of a minor. The picketers wanted Father Malia reinstated as pastor of Holy Cross, and St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic churches. Father Malia was asked to resign after he admitted to hiring a convicted child-sex offender, Robert Gee, as music director for Holy Cross.

“This particular mistake didn't harm anybody,” picketer and Holy Cross parishioner Jay Schwartz told the press. “Gee was the music director. He came in, played on Sundays and left.”

In Anchorage, Alaska, Archbishop Roger Schwietz faces an agonizing situation involving Father Timothy Crowley, an administrative aide in the chancery. Father Crowley lost his post in Ann Arbor, Mich., because of sexual misconduct involving a 15-year-old boy in the early 1980s. In 1995, then Archbishop Francis Hurley looked into Father Crowley's case and decided to give the priest an opportunity to serve in a limited ministry in Anchorage.

Archbishop Hurley made his decision after learning that Father Crowley had been put through intensive treatment for two years, and had convincingly turned his life and attitudes around. Father Crowley was sent to Anchorage on loan from the Diocese of Lansing, Mich.

For the past seven years, Father Crowley has seemingly epitomized what Pope John Paul II told American cardinals about in April: God's power to transform repentant priests.

“This is a priest who today is theologically in line with the Church in every way,” said Father Steven Moore, a canon lawyer and vicar general for the Archdiocese of Anchorage. “I would describe him as a little bit right of center, pious, energetic, loyal and eager to serve. He understands fully what he did, and the consequences of that and the pain it caused his victim. He just wants to continue being a priest — to continue celebrating the sacraments is very important to him.”

If the Vatican approves the norms requested by the bishops, however, Father Moore suspects Father Crowley's days in Anchorage will be over.

“He may be left with no livelihood, no community and no restrictions on his conduct whatsoever,” Father Moore said. “If we're really worried about the safety of children, the last thing we want to do is take away the structure, and the limitations and the community that a known offender answers to. It doesn't make sense. This is a man who has turned everything around and is in a situation in which he's of no threat to anyone. This zero tolerance, punitive approach is not coming from the values of the Church. This is a political, public relations, civil law approach that has nothing to do with Church values.”

Father Moore said he's finding cases all over the United States in which good, safe priests — assigned to safe positions — are getting booted out. He says he knows of a priest, whom he declines to name, who had sex with a 16-year-old girl more than 30 years ago. At the time, the priest was merely an 18-year-old first-year seminarian.

“He went home on break and had consensual sex with a girl, and when he returned from break he confessed this to his rector,” Father Moore said. “Somehow this ends up in his records, and now he's being targeted under this zero tolerance thing because she was 16. ... Of course it's ridiculous to remove him from ministry, but this isn't about concern for victims and would-be victims anymore. It's about destroying the moral authority of the Church.”

Victims Like Policy

Although laity are protesting the way some priests have been affected by zero tolerance, a leading victims' advocate has little sympathy for any of the priests who will lose their ministries — guilty or not. David Clohessy, director of Survivor's Network for those Abused by Priests, said the tables are finally turned.

“For decades we have erred on the side of protecting abusers, because they might be innocent or they might be reformed,” Clohessy said. “If we have to err at all, let's err in favor of the kids. And if an abusive priest is cured, so what if he loses his ministry? There are many ways a person can contribute to society without being a priest.”

If that's the approach society wants regarding sexual abuse allegations, said Father Higgins, then society should be consistent.

“You have five priests in Chicago right now who all maintain their innocence, yet they're losing their ministries,” Father Higgins said. “You go into Chicago and try to remove a doctor over a sexual abuse allegation, and you're in for an extremely rigorous process in which the doctor is enTITLEd to have the allegations proven. We're not using due process under canon law or any other law. We're playing politics and public relations, just like some big, heartless, secular corporation.”

Father Art Espelage, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America in Washington, told Catholic News Service that appeals by priests are possible. In fact, the Chicago priests are appealing.

“Although the policy in Dallas made no specific mention of appeals, when we talk about a sense of justice, I don't see how we could have no appeals,” he said.

Calling the right to appeal fundamental, Father Espelage said that for more than 1,000 years canon law has a tradition of allowing appeals. The Dallas policy's implementation will need more work, he warned: “The whole thing is in so much turmoil.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.