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US religious orders may keep abusive priests

Clergy from religious orders, who make up one third of priests in the United States, can continue working in restricted roles in their communities even if they've sexually abused minors.

This entitlement is part of a proposal backed by the country's Conference of Catholic Bishops. It will be discussed this week in Philadelphia by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Some observers are suggesting that religious priests are being treated less severely than diocesan priests.

US bishops adopted a sexual-abuse policy in Dallas two months ago, requiring bishops to dismiss priests who have abused minors. They cannot function as priests, lead worship or present themselves publicly as priests, which many bishops have interpreted to exclude them from any church work whatsoever.

But leaders of religious orders say abusive priests could be allowed to work in restricted office roles. However, they would not be allowed to work with children or function as priests.

"Someone keeping the books for a diocese would be in a public position, and bishops won't allow that," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops' conference. "But religious orders operate like families. In a religious house, everybody has a job. So even if a man is prohibited from functioning as a priest, he could work in the archives or hold some other job."

Unlike the bishops' meeting in Dallas, the major superiors are conducting all discussions about sexual abuse behind closed doors at this week's four-day conference "so people can speak freely," leaders said.

"This group, like any private institution, has the right to private discussions," said Thomas Plante, a psychologist at Santa Clara University who consults with religious orders about sexual abuse. "But secrecy is a hot issue for Catholics now. Anything that smells of secrecy is going to be met with skepticism and undermine trust."

Conference of Major Superiors of Men
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops | Restoring Trust: A Response to Sexual Abuse

Dallas Morning News

7 Aug 2002