Saturday, March 1, 2003

Diocese adopts abuse policy

Cleveland implements training, lay-person review board

By M.R. Kropko
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - The Cleveland Roman Catholic Diocese issued a new policy Friday to combat child sexual abuse by priests that includes new training requirements and a lay-person board to review allegations.

Bishop Anthony M. Pilla said the policy change requires priests and other staff to be permanently removed from ministry if an act of abuse is confirmed.

The changes are based on recommendations from a panel the bishop appointed to determine how the diocese can prevent sexual abuse of children and help victims of past abuse.

Pilla said the new policies expand current requirements.

"It reflects this diocese's sincere desire to deal effectively with the horrors of sexual abuse and reaffirms our fundamental policy," he said.

The diocese in 1989 adopted a policy for child-abuse allegations and amended it in 1992.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason's investigation of child sex abuse in the diocese ended in December with indictments against one priest and six diocesan employees.

Last April, Pilla suspended 15 diocesan priests accused of past sexual abuse. Most of them are seeking reinstatement.

Santiago Feliciano, a former diocese lawyer, said the test for the new policies will be whether the diocese follows them.

"There was a policy in place before," he said. "In any policy, the proof is in adhering to it and respecting it."

Feliciano, a diocese parishioner, has claimed diocesan officials forced him to leave for private practice because he accused the church of being more concerned about preserving its image than helping victims of abuse by priests.

He said people selected for the review board should be "advocates of children and lay people of the diocese, and that's their appropriate role. They need to be able to ask questions and act in the best interests of children."

Last March, Pilla asked William M. Denihan, a former public official in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, to form a commission to evaluate the policy. Denihan said the 22-member commission tried to create a policy that was sensitive to the possibility of false accusations and rights of accused priests.

Under the policy, Pilla will appoint an 11-member review board of mostly lay people to review allegations. The panel is to include two people with clinical expertise in abuse cases, a past victim of child sexual abuse, a parent, a parish priest, an expert in canon law and others well versed in dispute resolution.

A separate, three-member response team will respond to immediate and long-term needs of the victim, the accused person, parishes, church leaders and others affected by disclosure of sexual abuse.

The revised policy requires that clerics, employees or volunteers who have regular access to children go through a training program about detecting child abuse and their obligations to report it. The policy prohibits the diocese from hiring any employees with sex-offense convictions.

The diocese's schools and youth programs will be required to teach children how to prevent sexual abuse, beginning with pre-kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade.

Denihan said the policy is consistent with recommendations last year of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican.

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