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U.S. dioceses moving faster on abuse cases

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

DENVER -- The action against the priest was swift and public.

Within five days of receiving a decades-old child sex abuse allegation against the Rev. Melvin Thompson, Denver's Roman Catholic Archdiocese investigated, alerted law enforcement and announced his suspension to parishioners and the public.

The archdiocese said Thompson, 74, maintains his innocence. Some parishioners have complained the process was unfair and too fast. However, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput called prompt action "painful but necessary."

The episode highlights the challenges American Catholic Church leaders face as they follow through on a promise to be more transparent in dealing with priests accused of abuse, while respecting the rights of both victims and the accused.

The case comes amid a worsening global clergy abuse scandal focused on how Pope Benedict XVI has dealt with problem priests in his past church roles.

For years, some U.S. church officials kept mum about abuse allegations and shuffled problem priests from parish to parish -- practices first exposed in the 1980s and then on a larger scale in the early 1990s.

Denver's handling of the Thompson case is the latest example of American Catholic leaders shifting from secrecy to greater openness, an attitude church leaders elsewhere in the world have been slower to adopt.

This week, the Vatican for the first time made it clear that bishops and clerics worldwide should report such crimes to police if they are required to by law, matching a policy worked out by U.S. bishops after an explosion of sex abuse cases in 2002.

Critics of the church remain dubious of the U.S. efforts.

Some Catholics, while saying protecting children must be the overriding concern, worry church officials are moving too quickly in some cases.

"The church at this point is simply recognizing that children are more vulnerable than adults," said Diane Knight, the retired head of Catholic Charities in Milwaukee and chairwoman of the National Review Board, an advisory panel created by U.S. bishops in 2002. "If we're going to err, we're going to err more on the side of protecting children."

Policies approved by the Vatican as church law in the U.S. bar credibly accused priests from public ministry -- including saying Mass and working as a parish priest -- while allegations are investigated. Diocesan review boards, made up mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases.

Initial inquiries to determine whether a claim is credible tend to focus on making sure dates and places named in allegations stand up. A more in-depth investigation, also involving lay diocesan review boards, is then carried out. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.

Under the 2002 reforms, U.S. bishops are to comply with state laws for reporting abuse, and to cooperate with authorities. All U.S. dioceses were also instructed to advise victims of their right to contact authorities themselves. Most cases are old and fall outside statutes of limitations, making criminal prosecution impossible.

The Denver archdiocese, Knight said, acted more quickly than most but essentially followed protocol.

On April 7, the archdiocese said it received a complaint from a man who alleged he was sexually abused by Thompson in the early 1970s. The next day, Chaput said he removed the popular Thompson from his position as assistant pastor at St. Thomas More Parish in suburban Centennial and suspended his ability to function publicly as a priest.

Over the weekend, a letter from Chaput was read at seven Colorado parishes where Thompson has served.

The Denver Police Department said Tuesday the archdiocese reported the allegation last week, but that no police investigation would be launched because the case falls outside the statute of limitations. Jeanette DeMelo, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the archdiocese will conduct its own investigation.

Efforts to reach Thompson for comment were unsuccessful.

In his archdiocesan newspaper column this week, Chaput wrote that Thompson has "no previous allegation of any sexual misconduct with a minor in his priestly history." He said Thompson has been a "popular and effective priest," and emphasized that a presumption of innocence "must be respected."

"Prompt action is painful for the whole local church," Chaput wrote, "but it's a necessary course to protect people's trust in their parish and in the archdiocese."

Victims' advocates, who have criticized the 2002 reforms for not going far enough, remain skeptical. David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it's understandable that some bishops will move more quickly now given the intense public pressure about church delays and secrecy.

"But I would caution against assuming that this was a purely voluntary, incredibly responsible proactive step when we just don't have enough information to corroborate that and when the historic pattern is so radically different," he said.

Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychology professor who has counseled both victims and accused priests, said he found it curious a diocese would move so fast. When a clergyman, teacher, professor or Boy Scout leader is accused of child sexual abuse, it's more typical to investigate fully before making public statements, he said.

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Plante, vice chairman of the National Review Board. "That's part of the challenge now. People have demands and want to know, but we do have laws and due process for a reason."

Monsignor Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, voiced a similar concern while emphasizing that the proper response to an allegation hinges on the circumstances.

Green said legitimate outrage "has led to a situation where I think we've maybe reacted the other way, gone in the other direction and therefore we've gone gangbusters at times and maybe deal with it too fast."

The U.S. bishops' 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People calls for dioceses "to be open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved." It said it's especially important at parishes where the accused served.

Starting with Baltimore in 2002, between 15 and 20 dioceses have used their Web sites to list the names of credibly abused priests.

But pockets of resistance exist, too. The Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., has refused to take part in annual audits tracking compliance with the 2002 reforms. The holdout diocese illustrates the limitations of the charter, which does not carry the authority of the separate Vatican-approved norms for handling sex abuse claims in the U.S.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, said there's no way to fully investigate complaints confidentially. While terrible for an innocent priest, going public invites more victims to come forward and gives dioceses a better chance to reach the right conclusion, he said.

"I don't know of any other way to handle this today, granted how badly the bishops handled it in the past," Reese said. "My impression is this is the wave of the future."


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