Church Strategy to Oust Abusive Priests May Be Unraveling

Three months after America's Roman Catholic bishops promised to aggressively discipline priests who molest children, resistance to their policy is intensifying and the plan could be coming undone.

Parishioners are rallying behind accused priests. Clergy are suing alleged victims and complaining to the Vatican. Experts in church law are questioning whether the plan violates priests' rights.

Leaders of religious orders have accused the bishops of ignoring Catholic teaching on redemption and are allowing some abusers to continue their church work away from children.

"It is unraveling," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian from the University of Notre Dame.

"I don't think anybody knows where we're headed," said Philip Lawler, a conservative and editor of Catholic World Report magazine.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops insists its members are on the right track. Officials point to dioceses nationwide that have expanded their lay review boards, hired people to help victims and suspended accused priests.

At least 300 of the nation's 46,000 clergy have either resigned or been taken off duty over abuse claims since the molestation crisis erupted in January with the case of one predator in the Archdiocese of Boston. Under the bishops' policy, guilty priests are to be removed from all church work -- from saying Mass to teaching school to balancing the parish's books -- and in some cases from the priesthood altogether.

"If anything, the majority of the signs have been of a readiness to put the charter into effect," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the bishops' conference.

However some bishops have delayed implementing parts of the plan, such as ousting abusers from the priesthood, until the Vatican weighs in, and several analysts predict the Holy See will reject it. Rome's approval is needed to make the policy binding on U.S. dioceses, otherwise the policy approved June 14 in Dallas is simply a gentlemen's agreement.

The bishops have said that even if the plan is voluntary, no church leader would dare ignore it in this climate of public anger over mishandled abuse cases. The prelates formed a lay committee, the National Review Board, to evaluate whether dioceses were in compliance.

Yet the man the bishops recruited to head the panel, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, is already under attack from within the church, even before he holds his second meeting with the commission Monday.

The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Council of Priests said Keating was "more concerned with manipulating the public's emotions than seeking the truth." Keating's own prelate, Archbishop Eusebius Beltran, accused the governor of encouraging Catholics "to commit a mortal sin" when he said parishioners should switch dioceses if their bishop fails to properly address abuse.

More criticism of Keating came from the archdiocesan newspaper of Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who sparked the crisis by acknowledging he allowed abusive former priest John Geoghan to continue in parish work.

Rank-and-file Catholics are directing their anger at bishops.

At St. Rose of Lima Church in Cleveland, where the Rev. James Viall was accused of abuse and suspended, parishioners spoke up for the priest and jeered at diocesan administrators who urged compassion for victims. A flier inserted into the church's Sunday bulletin asked parishioners to fight for Viall's return.

Members of St. John Parish in Worcester, Mass., have rallied around the Rev. Joseph A. Coonan, who was suspended over abuse claims from before he was ordained.

Priests upset over the policy have been openly defiant. They are enraged that accused clergy are being publicly removed from pulpits without a formal process for defending themselves, and church lawyers are voicing similar complaints.

The Rev. Kevin McKenna, president of the Canon Law Society of America, wrote in an analysis in the Jesuit magazine America that the church law in effect at the time of an alleged molestation should be applied when cases are investigated. The majority of claims made this year are from years and even decades ago.

McKenna also joined those questioning whether the policy sufficiently emphasizes due process protections for priests. He worried that the reforms themselves could "violate basic human rights."

Some Worcester Diocese priests have asked fellow clergy to sign a letter to the Vatican opposing the policy.

There is no indication when the Vatican will issue its decision on the Dallas plan. The bishops are expected to address some of the criticisms at their next national meeting in November, but the policy itself does not come under full review for two years.

"The key thing here is how to work out due process procedures that protect the rights of the accused while at the same time protecting the community from abusers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America. "I don't think it's going to be easily resolved."