Victims' Groups Say Catholic Sex-Abuse Standards Not Tough Enough

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - U.S. Catholic bishops will take a step backward by adopting a watered down set of child-abuse standards at this week's four-day meeting in Washington, D.C., some victim-advocacy groups charged.

When U.S. bishops met with Vatican officials in late October, the victims' groups were hoping the church would take a tougher stand against priests who are accused of abuse. They say that did not happen, despite claims to the contrary by church leaders.

"Instead of moving toward zero-tolerance, we're moving away from that atmosphere," said Sue Archibald, president of the victim-advocacy group The Linkup. "Priests would probably say this is much more fair, but from a victim's perspective, this is a serious step in the wrong direction."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made two significant announcements relating to the sexual-abuse scandal prior to this week's gathering. Revisions to the guidelines were released on Monday, and then on Thursday the bishops introduced a top-ranking FBI official as director of Office of Child and Youth Protection.

While the victims' groups hailed the appointment of 24-year FBI veteran Kathleen McChesney, they said the revised guidelines fail to reform the church on several fronts.

"It's really disappointing and devastating for the American Catholic Church," said Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I think we have to be fearful again for our children in the Catholic institutions."

Archibald and Blaine were not completely upset with the revisions. They commended the church for expanding the guidelines to include religious order priests in addition to diocesan priests and prohibiting bishops from transferring accused priests to another parish for assignment.

But Archibald said the previous document, approved by bishops at a June meeting in Dallas, was much tougher on priests before the most recent revisions.

The inclusion of a statute of limitations -- 10 years past a layperson's 18th birthday -- makes it easier for the church to disregard many victims' complaints, she said. Many of the victims who Archibald counsels are older, she noted.

Archibald said she was concerned about changes in bishops' reporting requirements and internal investigation tactics. Also disturbing, she said, was the diminished role of laypeople and review boards that were intended to combat secrecy.

"The bishop is still the authority in making the decisions," Archibald said. "Although he'll take input from the review boards, he's still the judge and the jury. The laypeople are still in the process, but their opinions don't mean much."

The Catholic League, a group that fights anti-Catholic sentiment, countered the complaints of the victims' groups. League President William Donohue released two statements last week, one praising the revised guidelines and another attacking these so-called "rogue Catholics."

"They usually complain about everything," spokesman Louis J. Giovino said. "What more do they want? [The guidelines] strike a balance between compassion for the victims and due process for priests. You just do not start lynching every priest who looked at someone the wrong way."

The Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said many people do not realize that the document awaiting the bishops' approval governs the internal workings of the church.

"The document's purpose is to help church administrations deal with priests who have offended criminally within the context of the church," he said. "The civil law may have already sent them to prison. All kinds of things could have happened to them outside the church, but we still need to deal with those men internally."

Although church leaders might be frustrated by victims' complaints, Silva said their concerns should not be dismissed. He said victims have every right to be "loud and harsh" after having suffered abuse.

Silva said he expected some criticism of the revised guidelines, but on the whole thought they provided a good vision for the church.

"When we're looking at the development of policy within the context of the church, we can't allow ourselves to make policy on the basis of the emotion," Silva said. "It has to be on the basis of the law, and that's where we are in conflict."

A former adviser to the bishops' committee on sex abuse also called the guidelines a step in the right direction. Dr. Fred S. Berlin, who founded a sexual disorders clinic in Maryland, said the bishops must stand firm on punishment, but also recognize that some priests will require treatment.

The guidelines provide an appropriate balance, he said, following the beliefs of the church while taking a serious stand against child abuse.

A critic of the guidelines, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said they fail to offer assurances to victims that the church will appropriately discipline priests. She also said the guidelines fail to hold priests accountable.

"If you've committed sexual abuse, you're priesthood is over," she said. "You're manhood is not over, your dignity is not over and even you're goodness is not over. But your priesthood is finished."

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