Catholics struggle to define zero tolerance

Since Cardinal Bernard Law proclaimed his zero-tolerance policy for the Boston Archdiocese – removing from ministry all priests with allegations of sexual abuse in their files – "zero tolerance" has become the watchword of many Roman Catholic clerics seeking to reassure the faithful.

In their meetings at the Vatican last week, US cardinals reportedly were moving toward an agreement on zero tolerance for future cases. But no such policy was announced in the final communiqué.

Now, some are pressing for a zero-tolerance consensus at the June meeting of all US bishops.

But even as support for zero tolerance swells in the media and in the public, some clerics and others close to the crisis question if it is really a solution or closer to a quick fix that could actually hamper effective remedies.

"It makes for a good sound bite," says Thomas Plante, a California psychologist who treats priests who have abused minors. "But it may not protect the public any better." What good does it do to defrock priests and send them into the community, where they might abuse again, he asks.

"It is the lazy person's response to serious social problems," suggests Alan Wolfe, a Boston College sociologist. "It gets you away from the serious issues like: What kind of reporting do you have? And what different behaviors call for different sanctions." It represents a swing "from one extreme to another – from complete permissiveness to extreme stringency – and that can lead to a witch hunt," he adds.

It's not clear what a zero-tolerance policy would entail – defrocking only pedophiles, or also those who abuse older minors? Would it encompass past cases or only future ones? Or could it mean moving priests to assignments where there is no contact with minors?

What is clear, is that everyone sees sexual abuse of minors as a crime and that protecting the children is the first priority. The crux of the issue is the roles the church and law enforcement play. Who decides whether an allegation against a priest is credible? The church has been doing that largely on its own. But victims, prosecutors, and other Americans are demanding that law enforcement take over.

"The problem with 'one strike and you're out' is that the bishops still want to be the umpire and make the call," says Barbara Blaine, founder of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. "But the police and prosecutors need to make the call. They're the professionals."

Some prelates agree. On the same day last week that the cardinals were meeting with the pope, prosecutors from six Michigan counties announced an agreement with the Archdiocese of Detroit, whose archbishop, Cardinal Adam Maida, has questioned whether zero tolerance is workable. Wayne County prosecutor Michael Duggan called the voluntary accord "the most extensive disclosure agreement in the United States on these issues."

IN a state where clergy are not required to report sexual abuse, the Detroit Archdiocese agreed to turn over files from the past 15 years, release victims from confidentiality agreements, file future reports as if they were mandated to do so, and encourage victims to come forward and report any misconduct.

On Wednesday, the bishops of Georgia and the Carolinas came out in favor of full reporting to authorities of past and future cases, along with a zero-tolerance policy. These actions may encourage more US dioceses to turn files over to authorities. A few prosecutors, as in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, are going after church files and plan to convene grand juries to investigate. Meanwhile, some states without mandatory reporting for clergy are in the process of revising their child-abuse laws, and some are extending the statute of limitations for such cases. But what will happen to accused priests whose files aren't turned over, or whose cases fall outside the statutes of limitation? Or those who might be convicted, serve in prison, and then are released? How will decisions on the priestly status of such abusers be made?

In their final communiqué from Rome, the US cardinals said they will propose a "special process for the dismissal from the clerical state of a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors." And they'll proposed a process for dismissal for those who aren't notorious but who might still be a threat.

Some critics say the church isn't going far enough. But others urge caution.

"Zero tolerance is good in terms of the behavior, but it shouldn't mean writing human beings off," says Fred Berlin, a child-abuse specialist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "If the church isn't going to be there to help people toward correction, then society is going to be in serious trouble. What's important is that the church handle this as a church."

Therapists say there is a distinction between compulsive and incidental behavior. "There needs to be a personalized approach," says A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist who has worked with 129 priests since 1960. "It can't be a cookie-cutter process."

Dr. Plante agrees, noting: "I've treated 40 to 50 of these men, and some are very amenable to treatment, have not reoffended, and are in assignments that don't put them in contact with adolescents. Others are not treatable at all, they feel they've done nothing wrong, and they rationalize. They need custodial care, and it's best to have them in the priesthood under surveillance."

He insists there are success stories of productive priests whom it would be inappropriate to defrock.

What the church really needs to commit to in its national policy, many now say, is creation of independent diocesan review boards, involving appropriate professional and victim representatives, which can review cases. Such a board should have "people independent of the church so there isn't even the appearance of impropriety," Berlin says.

What the church does now, Dr. Wolfe suggests, should "resemble the legal system, where you do it on a case-by-case basis, where the most serious crimes get the most severe punishment, and where people who are accomplices to the crime – in this case a number of church officials – would also be punished."

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