NEW YORK – Priests suspected of sexually abusing children but protected from expulsion by Catholic law are being offered a choice in the New York Archdiocese: Enter a lifelong supervision program or leave the church.
Since June, five of the seven priests in that situation have chosen to leave the priesthood, said archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling.
The other two are expected to spend their lives in closely supervised housing, where they will undergo therapy and maintain a daily log of their movements. They will not be permitted to say Mass in public, dress as priests, be alone with children or "inappropriately use computers," according to a letter sent to the priests by Cardinal Edward Egan.
Previously, suspected abusers had been barred from functioning as priests but were required only to notify the archdiocese of where they were living, Zwilling said.
"We, through our own process, have come to the conclusion that we believe that these men cannot be returned to ministry, and therefore we have to find something to do with them," Zwilling said.
Victims advocates said the new policy could help protect the church from liability but worried that the priests who decide to leave could again become abusers.
"Unleashing them on society is not the responsible thing to do," said the Rev. John P. Bambrick, a priest in the Trenton Diocese who says he was abused as a youth by a priest and is now an advocate for victims.
The church says it refers any allegations that could result in a prosecution to law enforcement officials, but in many old cases, the statute of limitations has run out.
The tight supervision, called the Shepherd Program, targets priests who have been referred by an archdiocesan advisory board, as well as those who have been convicted in a canonical trial but are determined to be too old or sick to endure being defrocked.
It is unclear how common such programs are.
"There are several other dioceses that have similar programs, but unfortunately, none of them are willing to talk about it," said William Ryan, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Officials at the Chicago Archdiocese said nine priests accused of sex abuse live in a retreat house on the grounds of a seminary and are carefully monitored.