In a couple of weeks, Roman Catholic bishops in the United States meet to set new policies on sexual abuse by priests. During the last few months, hundreds of Americans have accused priests or bishops of abusing them when they were children. Advocacy groups are offering the bishops their thoughts about what should be done with abusive priests.
The current scandal in the Catholic church in the United States began earlier this year when it was revealed that the head of the Boston archdiocese knowingly transferred priests who had abused children. In some cases, the diocese paid a settlement to the victim, with the condition that he or she not tell anyone about the abuse or the settlement.
Among the options bishops will consider when they meet in Dallas is a so-called zero tolerance policy toward abusive priests. Some supporters of zero-tolerance say it means a priest who abuses a child should be stripped of priesthood; others say it means he should be removed from parish ministry, but could perform duties in which there would be no contact with children.
The Illinois Coalition against Sexual Assault has sent its recommendations to the bishops for consideration. Coalition director Polly Poskin supports a zero tolerance policy. "You should not have to wait for the 2nd or 10th or 40th victim to come forward before the abuser is revealed for who he is,"she said. "If you do not implement a zero tolerance policy, what you have indicated is that somebody gets a free rape? No. That is intolerable."
Ms. Poskin was in Chicago for a national sexual violence prevention conference.
A Chicago-based Catholic reform organization, "Call to Action," says zero-tolerance is not necessarily the best approach for all priests accused of abuse. Group spokeswoman Claire Noonan says Call to Action believes priests whose abuse constitutes a felony crime should be removed from ministry, but those convicted of a lesser offense might deserve a second chance. "And in the cases of a misdemeanor, after the person has served the appropriate sentence, received the appropriate therapy, an independent review board, composed of a majority of lay [non-clergy] people could make a decision whether or not the person could ever be reassigned to ministry," she said.
Ms. Noonan says her group does want all allegations of abuse reported to local authorities. In many Roman Catholic dioceses, allegations are reported to the bishop and the matter is dealt with internally.
During the last few months, a growing number of people have ended years of silence about their own abuse. Polly Poskin of the Illinois Coalition against Sexual Abuse is not able to give exact numbers, but says the group's 30 affiliate counseling centers have been receiving more calls on the matter. She says many victims are encouraged by news of other victims coming forward. "It is support," she said. "It is permission. It is affirmation that you are not alone. It is an indication that there are other people who are just like me, that this has happened to me and somebody believed him or her."
In Chicago, church officials are not only working with the U.S. Bishop's Conference on a national policy, but are also working to fight abuse on a local level. Kathleen Harris of the Metropolitan Chicago YWCA says the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese has contacted her organization about offering sexual abuse prevention workshops in Catholic schools later this year. "It would allow students to understand that there are people who perpetrate this sort of activity and it is okay to tell that person, "no," and to go get help for it," said Kathleen Harris.
The Catholic bishops' meeting begins June 13. Any policy created at the conference is subject to approval by the Vatican.