At their Dallas meeting, the bishops opted for a tough zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. They scrapped their original provision that would have let a priest with a one-time offense in the past be monitored and continue in ministry. While some applauded the bishops’ action, the reality of what it means is hitting home hard at more that a few parishes across the country that find themselves losing their priests. This story is just a sample.

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Post-Dallas: Between a rock and a hard place

“If I had my ‘druthers,’ I probably would have preferred to have a case-by-case review,” Toledo Bishop James R. Hoffman told NCR in a phone interview. “It’s clear now that the bishops have passed this as policy, I certainly intend to follow it -- and I will follow it.”

Hoffman is just one of many bishops around the country reflecting on the new “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which their national conference passed last month in Dallas.

But for Hoffman, his musings aren’t hypothetical. The head of the northwest Ohio diocese recently took the painful action of removing a popular priest from a parish where he served successfully for the past 10 years. (See accompanying story above.) The priest, Fr. Robert Fisher, was removed because the new zero-tolerance policy states that “for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present, or future --the offending priests or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.” Fisher’s one-time offense, in 1988, was a misdemeanor. He served 30 days in jail, and after four years of psychological treatment and evaluation was judged to be not a risk. His parishioners were told of his history before he was named to the parish, and there have been no new allegations in 15 years.

Fr. Nicholas Weibl, Toledo’s vicar for priests, said the policy is a tough one. “It’s like double jeopardy. You serve time, and are resentenced again.”

Weibl said he agreed with bishops who voiced concerns in Dallas that the new policy will change the relationship between bishop and priest.

When he removed Fisher in May, Hoffman told parishioners that he hoped after Dallas to “have some clear direction in guiding Fr. Fisher’s priestly ministry.” The draft then under consideration would have required any priest who commits sexual abuse in the future to be removed from priesthood. It would have allowed an exception for some offenders who had committed a single act in the past, had undergone psychological treatment and had not been diagnosed as pedophiles. Fisher fit that description.

But in Dallas, victims’ groups decried the loophole for one-time abusers. The bishops removed it, and applied the removal from priestly ministry penalty to past, present and future offenses.

In Dallas, Hoffman told The Washington Post that he was relieved he doesn’t have to seek Fisher’s removal from the priesthood, and might be able to find some constructive role for him. According to the Post article, “The possibility that men such as Fisher could remain priests, possibly in jobs that are not considered ‘ministry’ by their bishops, infuriates victims groups.”

Hoffman told NCR that after three days of pre-Dallas discussions with more than 160 priests of the diocese, he found them deeply divided over how to deal with sexual offenders in their ranks.

Fr. Martin Donnelly, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Toledo’s central city, said he was “profoundly concerned that zero tolerance will be seen as the end of the process.”

“I think God has wanted lay folks and the church at large to have a strong, authoritative voice in church decision making since Vatican II. … Everyone recognizes a need to include the whole church actively, to be responsible, to bring all our wisdom to the hard decisions. This would be a moment of grace if the hierarchy includes everybody in the process,” he said.

“The best politics, and the best public relations, is to do the right thing,” he said, “that is, the true thing and the just thing.”

If the actions of Toledo priests are a barometer of their feelings about what’s just and true, their support for Fisher couldn’t be stronger. At an annual priests’ gathering two weeks ago, they revived an old custom of giving an award, called the Tiger Award. “They gave out 10 or 20 gag awards at the banquet last week,” said one priest. “Then for the last one they got serious. They gave one for courage.

“They gave it to Bob Fisher … and the assembly stood and applauded.”

-- Tom Kelly

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002