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The Church After Dallas 

On June 14, the nearly 300 bishops of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops met in Dallas and approved disciplinary policies to protect children from sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. Any priest known to have abused a child will be barred from serving in a Catholic church, school, nursing home or hospital. Although offenders will retain the title of priest, they may no longer call themselves "father" or wear the clerical collar.

We welcome the additional safeguards and are especially grateful to the victims of abuse who worked to bring about change in church policy. But the "Dallas Accords" fell short of the zero-tolerance proposal sought by many, including this newspaper. In fact, a Washington Post poll released last week stated that two-thirds of Catholics -- and three-fourths of the general public -- believe the bishops' policy doesn't do enough to protect children.

In New Orleans, Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes has repeatedly apologized for his own role in the crisis. From November 1990 to January 1993, Hughes served as the second-in-command to Boston Cardinal Bernard Law ("Deposing the Archbishop," May 21). Last week, The Associated Press reported that a Massachusetts grand jury is investigating whether Law "and other church leaders" in Boston should face criminal prosecution. The report did not cite Hughes by name, but the New Orleans archbishop's duties in Boston included monitoring the treatment programs of now-defrocked Fr. John J. Geoghan and other known pedophiles.

"The continued acceptance of John Geoghan for priestly assignment was a tragic error," Hughes stated in January. Other bishops have apologized for negotiating secret cash settlements with victims and shepherding abusers to other dioceses. This month, the Dallas Morning News published a report finding that nearly two-thirds of the nation's bishops had oversight over alleged abusive priests. On the other hand, Hughes said last Monday, "I don't know of an instance where a bishop has been obstructing justice."

In Dallas, the bishops demonstrated that they understand who the real victims are. "This [the Dallas Accords] has shifted our pastoral priority from correction of priests to the protection of children," Hughes said last week. But for many critics, one question remains: Can church superiors who have been part of the problem now become part of the solution?

For example, Hughes recently ordered 10 priests and two deacons removed from clerical duties -- but he declined to identify them. "Our policy is, and our practice has been, that there is no reason to identify them," says Archdiocese spokesman Father William Maestri. "And we don't see any compelling reason to do that. They are either retired or out of ministry." Maestri adds that the archdiocese is currently contacting the alleged victims to see if they wish to keep the information confidential. Current church policy is to report to law enforcement only when the alleged victim is still a minor.

That's not enough. Victims' wishes certainly should be respected with regard to their own identities, but offenders should always be exposed. At a minimum, it would warn potential future victims; it also might encourage other past victims, if any, to come forward. "Secrecy fosters more secrecy, which supports the pedophile and re-victimizes the victim," says Mitchell Gardibedean, a Boston attorney whose law firm has taken testimony from Hughes in civil cases against the Boston church. "What is the point of keeping it secret unless the victim wants it kept secret? It's only to protect the priest."

In New Orleans, District Attorney Harry Connick's office has not yet received a single case against a priest, says a Connick spokesman. An NOPD spokesman says two alleged victims have come forward, but the cases were too old for prosecution.

But one former prosecutor says that, contrary to popular belief, there is no time limit for the most serious sex crimes. Kevin Boshea, former chief of screening and sex crimes for Connick, says there is no statute of limitations in rape cases when the victim is less than 12 years old. "If you have an 11-year-old altar boy who was raped in 1986, theoretically, he still has a case," Boshea says. And state law has extended the time period for reporting lesser offenses such as oral sexual battery. "Victims have until age 28 to have a district attorney pursue a criminal complaint," Boshea says. However, prosecutors have less time --four to six years from the alleged crime -- to pursue an "accessory after the fact," such as a church official who shielded pedophiles from justice. Boshea, a Catholic and now a defense attorney, says bishops as well as offenders themselves must be held accountable.

This November, accountability for bishops will likely be on the agenda at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops' general meeting in Washington, D.C. As they work to restore trust and to protect the most fragile members of their faith, the bishops -- including our own Archbishop Hughes -- should reconsider their policy of not identifying all alleged abusers to law enforcement officials. Child abuse can be stopped only when parents are vigilant, children are educated, criminals are prosecuted and the law is upheld.


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