When the new leaders of Washington state's three Roman Catholic dioceses gather with some 300 of their fellow bishops in Bellevue this week, they will take on some weighty issues, including revisions to the church's child sex-abuse prevention policies.
When the new leaders of Washington state’s three Roman Catholic dioceses gather with some 300 of their fellow bishops in Bellevue this week, they will take on some weighty issues.
Among the agenda items for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring meeting, which takes place Wednesday through Friday at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue:
• A revision of policies adopted by the bishops nearly a decade ago in response to the clergy sexual-abuse crisis.
• A briefing on their efforts to keep marriage between one man and one woman.
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• A vote on a document opposing physician-assisted suicide.
Though the topics may be significant, the actions the bishops take aren’t likely to create sweeping changes — and on the issue of clergy sex abuse, at least, that upsets some.
Recent developments have raised questions about whether the bishops’ policy, passed in 2002, is working well enough, or even if it’s enforceable.
In Philadelphia, for instance, a grand jury earlier this year said it found 37 priests accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior who had been allowed to remain in active ministry. The archbishop of Philadelphia later suspended two dozen of them.
The grand jury also indicted a high-ranking church official on child-endangerment charges for allegedly transferring predator priests. Two priests, an ex-priest and a former Catholic schoolteacher were charged with raping children.
In Kansas City, the bishop acknowledged not paying enough attention to past warnings about a priest who was charged last month with possessing child pornography.
And in both of those cities, the dioceses’ own independent review boards — experts who help the bishops evaluate abuse allegations — have said the bishops did not give them important information.
The charter is a “weak, vague and largely unenforceable set of guidelines,” said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We have yet to see a single Catholic employee, from custodian to cardinal, disciplined for breaking any part of the charter.”
The charter requires, among other things, that dioceses conduct background checks of employees and establish codes of conduct for those working with minors. It also has a zero-tolerance policy — meaning any priest with a single credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor cannot remain in the ministry.
Annual audits are supposed to assess whether each diocese is complying with the charter. But the audits rely in part on information disclosed by the diocese. The Philadelphia Archdiocese’s last audit, for instance, was clean.
“We’re not quite sure what happened” in Philadelphia, said the Most Rev. Blase Cupich, who was installed as bishop of the Spokane Diocese in September. Cupich also chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People and, as such, will lead the discussion on revising the charter.
By and large, the charter is working, said Cupich, and that’s why proposed revisions this time are minor — part of a scheduled, periodic review.
The proposed changes also are to bring it into line with recently issued Vatican instructions, including specifically mentioning child pornography as a crime against church law. The charter was last revised in 2005.
In Seattle, as far as is publicly known, any priest who has been credibly accused of abuse of a minor has been removed from ministry.
Still, in 2004, the majority of members of the Seattle Archdiocese’s lay review board criticized then-Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett for, among other things, suggesting future abuses by local priests were unlikely to happen, for not releasing the names of offending priests until after the Vatican had decided their fates, and for trying to soften a board report critical of church policies.
In the Seattle Archdiocese, from the 1980s to now, more than 300 people have come forward saying they were abused, with all the abuses occurring before 1985, said Greg Magnoni, archdiocese spokesman. The archdiocese has paid about $48 million total over the years in settlements, counseling and attorneys’ fees, with much of that coming from insurance companies.
Also on the agenda is a vote on a document on assisted suicide. That topic hits particularly close for Washington citizens, who in 2008 passed an initiative allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for terminally ill patients seeking to hasten their deaths.
Some Catholic groups opposed the initiative.
In addition to Cupich, the state’s new Catholic prelates include the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain, installed in December as Seattle archbishop, and the Most Rev. Joseph Tyson, installed in May as Yakima bishop.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Information from The Associated Press is used in this report.