Capuchin admission puts spotlight on sex abuse reporting for orders
By Jun. 18, 2013|
Two former leaders of the lay group set up by the U.S. bishops in 2002 to monitor the church’s sex abuse policies nationwide have said questions remain over how religious orders are being audited for their adherence to those policies.
The comments of the leaders came in interviews with NCR Monday before the release of a wide-ranging audit Tuesday, which concluded that the province of one order acted inadequately in responding to sex abuse allegations over a period of eight decades.
That province, the report concluded, placed the needs of priest-abusers above their lay victims and gave deference to lawyers who “re-victimized” those victims in an attempt to protect the clerics from costly lawsuits.
One of the former leaders of the U.S. bishops’ lay group to monitor sex abuse policies, Judge Michael Merz, said religious orders are not bound by the same rules for abuse reporting as bishops across the country.
While 194 of 195 of U.S. dioceses have agreed to abide by the policies set in place by the bishops in 2002, known as “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” orders of religious are not bound by that charter, said Merz, a federal district court judge in Ohio who served as the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for clergy sex abuse from 2007 to 2009.
Instead, Merz said, the religious orders are only bound to a narrower set of policies called the “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons.”
Unlike the charter, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops officially approved the norms. Thus, they carry the weight of church law in the U.S.
While the charter, a set of 17 articles agreed upon by U.S. bishops and dioceses, mandates that the church entities submit themselves to annual audit process of their abuse policies and reporting, the norms, a separate set of 13 obligations, do not make specific mention of such audits.
Instead, the norms deal most specifically with what to do with a cleric who has abused children, mandating that “when even a single act of sexual abuse” by a cleric can be proved, “the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry.”
“[Religious orders] don’t have any options on the essential norms — that is to say, if they’ve got a guy who’s abused, he’s got to go,” Merz said. “But on terms of the whole, how you make that happen, it’s structured differently from the way the charter is.”
Tuesday’s report concerned the St. Joseph Province of the Capuchins, which is headquartered in Detroit but oversees approximately 170 friars serving in a diverse swath of the country and in Nicaragua and Panama.
The province has been the subject of scrutiny in recent years, particularly over its handling of abuse at one of its seminaries in the Milwaukee area in the 1990s.
The report frankly concludes that since the 1930s, when it says records were first available, the province rarely reported abuse to authorities, spent more money on hiring lawyers than on aid to victims, and routinely moved offenders between positions without divulging complaints against them.
Following the charter guidelines, one-third of U.S. dioceses are audited each year for their policies and handling of sex abuse. The bishops’ conference releases a report each year of those audits.
Although religious orders do not take part in that process and are not specifically bound by the charter to undergo audits, many seek accreditation for their abuse procedures through third-party reviewers.
Since 2003, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), an umbrella group based in Washington representing approximately 17,000 men in about 200 religious orders in the U.S., has recommended that orders seek such accreditation from Praesidium, a Texas-based firm that specializes in what it calls “abuse risk management.”
While Capuchin Fr. John Pavlik, the conference’s executive director, said his group does not keep statistics on how many U.S. orders seek such accreditation, he said “a religious community would be very unwise not to participate in the programs, not to have policies, not to have procedures in place.”
And while Pavlik said participation in the audit scheme is “ultimately” voluntary, he said diocesan participation in the charter’s audit scheme is also voluntary because any bishop, as the ultimate leader of their diocese, can decide he doesn’t want to follow the charter’s norms.
“It’s the same for dioceses, if you think about it,” said Pavlik, who is a former provincial of a separate Capuchin province, the province of St. Augustine, headquartered in Pittsburgh. “There’s a certain amount of moral pressure, obviously” for bishops to continue to abide by the charter. “And I would say it’s the same for religious as for dioceses,” he said.
Al Notzon III, who succeeded Merz as chair of the national review board and concluded his term in the post this month, said he attended the annual convention of the CMSM last year and was “more impressed than I was prepared to be” with how to conference is helping religious orders of men report abuse.
During a workshop at the event, Notzon said, he was particularly impressed with how members of the orders talked about their systems of background checks and safe environment training to prevent abuse.
“I was not expecting it,” said Notzon, who also previously served as the chairman of the diocesan review board in San Antonio. Referring to the fact that the orders are not required to follow the charter, he said, “I was frankly looking for ammunition to see if we could come under one standard.”
But the question the orders face, Notzon said, is, “What kind of independent audit is being done to provide assurance they’re following a standard?”
The difference between dioceses and orders, Notzon said, is that “in the diocese, we know there is an independent audit that is, in fact, happening in every diocese every three years.”
Regarding the conference’s ability to require individual orders to conduct audits, Merz said the conference “has even less legislative authority … over the orders than the bishops’ conference does over diocesan bishops, which is very little.”
[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR staff writer. His email address is email@example.com.]
Whenever church officials are promoted, we always hope for the best. We hope that church officials will bring in an outsider who has not been involved in an institution that has been marred by cover-ups, or that a priest is promoted instead of a monsignor or fellow bishop. Today, when a Jesuit priest Fr. Thomas Smolich was tapped to head the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, church officials did exactly the opposite of what we hope for. They elevated a man with a horrific record on child sex abuse and who has been allegedly involved in many cover ups.
Smolich, who has worked as President of the Jesuit Conference of the United States since 2006, has a history rife with excusals of predator priests. In 2002, Smolich was working as the Provincial for the California province of the Jesuits. When Angel Crisostomo Mariano was sued in civil court for abusing a mentally disabled man, Smolich denied knowing much about Mariano at all, despite the fact that, at that point, Smolich had been roommates with Mariano for two years.
Beyond living with credibly accused predator priests, Smolich has housed other convicted and accused predators at the Sacred Heart Center in Los Gatos, CA where these predators have been able to mix with vulnerable adults, in some cases abusing them. Fr. James Chevedden was wheelchair-bound and living at Sacred Heart when he was abused by serial predator Br. Charles Leonard Connor (http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/12309408.htm).
Tragically, Fr. Chevedden died by suicide or a staged suicide three years after reporting the abuse, and the Jesuits later settled with Chevedden’s surviving family in a wrongful death suit.
Smolich has housed and protected more than just Br. Connor, however. At least five credibly-accused or convicted predators have lived at Sacred Heart (Fr. Connor, Fr. Jerold Lidner, Fr. Edward Thomas Burke, Fr. Mariano, and Br. John Moniz) (http://www.detnews.com/2002/religion/0207/01/religion-526386.htm). These men were afforded the opportunity to not only avoid responsibility for their crimes, but also the chance to abuse others.
Clearly, Smolich is more focused on protecting his fellow Jesuits than he is deterring them from abusing children and vulnerable adults or making sure that citizens are safe from other predators within the Society of Jesus. We are deeply concerned that Smolich is the type of man who is, at least according to the Catholic hierarchy, worthy of promotion. We wonder how many more people have been or will be abused by his protection of predator priests, and we worry about how this promotion will allow this type of behavior to continue.
Smolich should be demoted, not promoted.
We urge anyone who has been abused by any priest, Jesuit or otherwise, to immediately go to the police and work to put the predator in jail. That’s the best way to keep kids safe. The Jesuits are still not doing what they should to safeguard the vulnerable and expose child molesting clerics.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. SNAP was founded in 1988 and has more than 12,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers and increasingly, victims who were assaulted in a wide range of institutional settings like summer camps, athletic programs, Boy Scouts, etc. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)