Friday, June 07, 2002

Abuse by priests

Can clergy be trusted to police?

        The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops may vote next week on measures regulating how they handle priests who abuse children.

        The proposals announced Tuesday promise zero tolerance for priests who victimize children in the future or who have abused children more than once in the past. They would be defrocked.

        Priests who have abused a child once in the past could continue serving a parish if they agree to certain conditions, such as counseling and public disclosure.

        The proposals, however, say little about what will happen to bishops, archbishops and other church leaders who have sheltered or shuttled around abusive priests, keeping their crimes secret and failing to support or protect children.

        Will they, too, face punishment?

        How can they be trusted to police themselves, to be sure each of the nation's 194 dioceses complies with the rules and doesn't continue to cover up abuses?

Answers needed

        These questions don't have answers yet in the proposed policies, but they should.

        Without answers, many of us skeptics will continue to have little faith in the church's resolve to cleanse itself of dirty priests.

        Steve Dasenbrock, 32, of Anderson Township, is one of the disillusioned. At age 12 he was molested by a priest. And as a teen, he watched the church protect that priest.

        The bishops voting on this measure, he says, have no authority to punish each other for violating it.

        “What real power or authority would this group have?” he says. “It's disingenuous.”

        In the early 1980s, Mr. Dasenbrock says he and his 9-year-old brother were molested by then-Rev. George Cooley, a former Guardian Angels associate pastor in Mount Washington. In 1989 they told their parents, who then informed parish officials and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk.

        The scene is still fresh in Mr. Dasenbrock's mind: The Most Rev. Pilarczyk sitting silently in his family's living room, listening to the boys' allegations.

        He didn't reveal that he had heard similar accusations about Mr. Cooley at least once in the past.

        He didn't reveal that he had transferred Mr. Cooley without restrictions on his contact with children.

        He didn't disclose that he and other church officials had written letters commending Mr. Cooley to pave the way.

        The family demanded that Mr. Cooley be removed and that his crimes be disclosed.

        When church leaders balked, the Dasenbrocks threatened to tell police. The archdiocese is said to have responded by cutting funds for the boys' counseling.

        In 1991, Mr. Cooley was convicted for abuse, briefly jailed and defrocked.

New accountability

        Archbishop Pilarczyk declined to be interviewed. Since 1993, though, he and other archdiocese leaders have changed how they handle abuse allegations.

        Several accused priests have been put on leaves of absence, said spokesman Dan Andriacco. “We don't have a history of simply reassigning priests to other parishes when we know they have offended against minors,” he says.

        To be sure, though, the U.S. bishops should create national accountability measures for the newly proposed procedures.

        Bishops outside a troubled diocese should see to it that police are called in soon after abuse allegations, that families of abuse victims aren't pressured into silence, and that priests changing jobs have their real histories follow them.

        Not just letters of commendation.

       Call Denise Smith Amos at 768-8395, or e-mail


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