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Church in Crisis

Religious orders take different view of abuse policy


The leaders of men’s religious orders gathered Aug. 7 in Philadelphia in an attempt to apply the U.S. bishops’ new rules regarding priests guilty of sexual abuse to situations the leaders say are significantly different from those governing diocesan clergy.

Unlike the bishops’ gathering, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men’s three-day meeting is closed to the public. Conference leaders have said this will allow them to speak freely.

The conference does not reject the bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Young People,” composed at their Dallas meeting. That document requires the permanent removal from all ministries of any priest found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor and says that such priests can’t celebrate Mass publicly or wear priestly clothing.

The religious orders’ task, said conference president Franciscan Fr. Canice Connors, is to “to apply the charter to the particularities of religious life.” That application, he said, may allow abusive priests to perform some ministries that wouldn’t put them in contact with children.

“There are some codes of canon law that are different for diocesan priests,” he said. “We take permanent vows of community,” which is not true of diocesan priests. Furthermore, he said, speaking of the conference, “We don’t have the kind of authority the bishops do. We’re simply a service group to help our membership.”

Priests found guilty of abuse, he said, “could still live in religious life while not doing public ministry. They could work in the order with no outside contact. For instance, such priests might become archivists. They might maintain a development or a treasury office. They might work in an infirmary to take care of others from religious life.”

While Connors has said he disagrees with the idea of sending abusive priests away to monasteries (NCR, July 5), he said order priests could be sent to residences founded specifically to minister to them.

“There are some in existence already,” he said. “In cases where orders aren’t big enough, several orders can form communities where these men might live.” One, the Vianney Renewal Center in the St. Louis suburb of Dittmer, Mo., is maintained by the Paraclete fathers. “They’ve been there a number of years now,” he said.

Mark Serrano, vice president of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, has expressed criticism of the idea that abusive priests should be allowed to remain in their orders. He has said that he fears abusive priests might still find ways to gain access to children even in ministries that don’t provide them easy access.

“The religious orders are in some ways a bigger problem than diocesan priests,” he told The Philadephia Inquirer, “because they are spread out geographically and more tight-knit culturally, so there’s more nondisclosure and secrecy.”

The Survivors Network petitioned the Conference of Major Superiors of Men before the meeting to be allowed to address the Philadelphia meeting but was turned down, Connors said, because, “we have already received their message given at the bishops’ June meeting, and now we must act on the charter. Our time here is limited.”

He said the participants hope to vote before the end of the conference Aug. 10 on “a methodology” to establish the instruments to bring the particular provisions of the charter to religious orders. “Since we are spread out, we have to deal with questions such as how to maintain service in so many locations.”

There are about 15,000 religious-order priests in the United States, equal to roughly one-third of the total priests in the country.

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002