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Diocese has process for complaints
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

KANSAS CITY - In December 2001 the news broke that a defrocked priest of Boston, had been indicted on charges of sexually abusing a young boy over a decade ago. Within weeks, sex abuse allegations against priests were filed all over the country, some alleged incidents dating back nearly half a century.

The Catholic Church came under fire for its past response to the problem. In some dioceses, allegations of priestly sexual misconduct had been given what appeared to be a cursory investigation, followed by reassignments to different parishes within the same diocese. In the case of John Geoghan of the Archdiocese of Boston, the Boston Globe reported the abuse allegedly recurred with more than 130 young boys over 34 years.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law admitted to repeatedly reassigning Geoghan to various parishes.

Geoghan is now serving time in prison for child sexual abuse.

Catholics felt bewilderment: These men were priests. They were icons of trust.

Catholics felt anger: Why had the church swept the problem under the rug, and not dealt with it?

Catholics felt fear: Were their children in danger from priests in their parish?

In May 1988, Bishop John J. Sullivan, then bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, approved a revision of his 1986 policy statement on diocesan response to claims of sexual abuse of children. This revised policy clearly stated that "there would be no institutional cover up" for clergy sexual abuse of children.

Around this time evaluation and intervention committees were formed. These were comprised of both religious and laity, including a civil attorney and the diocesan attorney, and a psychologist. A complainant was represented by a priest or family member who sat on the committees.

Bishop Raymond J. Boland revised the policy in September 1994 and again in October 1996. The current diocesan policy adheres to Missouri state laws on the reporting of sexual abuse of minors (children 18 years of age or younger are minors for reporting purposes) underscored by the presence of a health care professional on the response team who is required by law to report sexual abuse of minors.

The policy provides for full disclosure of the details of an investigation, should a claimant wish to go public. The policy is published and can be accessed through the office of Father Patrick Rush, Vicar General.

The makeup of the evaluation and intervention committees changed at the same time. Currently, three people sit on the Diocesan Response Team: Leslie Guillot, a psychotherapist; former chancellor of the diocese Father Richard Carney; and Father Rush, coordinator. Sister of Mercy Jeanne Christensen, victim's advocate, serves as a liaison between the victim and the Response Team.

The Response Team listens to the claimant and/or the family and gathers evidence. If the evidence suggests the allegations are credible, the claim is referred to the Independent Review Board.

The Review Board is comprised of five members, none of whom is a religious or employed by the diocese.

Dr. J. Gordon Kingsley, an ordained Baptist minister and past president of William Jewell College, chairs the Independent Review Board. Its members include: Joe McGuff, former editor of The Kansas City Star and past chair of the Independent Review Board; Denise Gilmore, a former teacher at St. Teresa's Academy, and John O'Connor, an attorney. A fifth member asked not to be identified.

Bishop Boland receives Review Board recommendations on treatment, programs, restrictions and whether or not the accused should leave his/her ministry. Recommendations and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

The Review Board and the Response Team work in tandem to respond to claims of sexual abuse of minors on the part of any diocesan employee, religious or lay person.

The Response Team is now involved in preliminary meetings with six complainants who have come forward in the last two weeks, after a hiatus of several years.

The very makeup of the Response Team and the Independent Review Board helps guarantee their integrity and independence, so decisions concerning sexual misconduct are not “in-house,” Father Rush said.

If a call or letter comes to Father Rush’s office alleging sexual abuse of a minor by any diocesan employee, whether religious or laity, the approach is immediately pastoral. He invites the complainant to meet with the Immediate Response Team and the victim’s advocate.

Father Rush responded to a recent letter of inquiry about the process for filing a sexual abuse claim with a detailed description of the team’s response. He wrote that the team arranges a mutually convenient meeting time for the victim and all members. At the meeting the team listens to the victim’s experience, tries to identify the accused if his name is not known, and determine the circumstances. He said the team makes sure that all Missouri state reporting laws are followed and does whatever further investigation seems necessary. The information is then reported to the Independent Review Board, which directs the diocese in any further action.

Sister Christensen works with the victim before, during, and after the meeting to help with the healing process. Her role, she said, is to enable people to speak for themselves. To that end she offers “compassionate support and empathetic listening.”

She presents appropriate resources and services to the complainant and/or the family. These include counseling and programs tailored to help the complainant get his life back together, she said.

If the complainant wishes, she will meet with him or her prior to the appointment with the Response Team. She may also offer to accompany the claimant to the meeting. But, Sister Christensen said, she does not speak on behalf of the complainant.

At the meeting with the Response Team she would take only such notes as needed to maintain communication with the complainant, and those would be destroyed or released to the vicar general, if the complainant consented in writing.

Sister Christensen said her role is to assist the Independent Review Boardin bringing about healing for the victim, the accused and the community.

Dr. Kingsley said the Response Team makes it clear to the claimant that they are in a helping, pastoral role only. Claimants are always told they have the right to contact civil lawyers, the prosecutor, the media or anyone else if they wish, he said.

Former diocesan chancellor Father Richard Carney, a longtime member of the Immediate Response Team, said that when an allegation of sexual misconduct is made, the Response Team invites the victim to speak with them as soon as possible.

“We want to get the whole incident out on the table. By asking questions and listening to the alleged victim, we can see if we have a credible complaint,” he said.

Father Carney said he was glad of the recent publicity because it has forced dioceses “to do something. In 1985, when the first claims of clergy pedophilia were made, dioceses didn’t do anything. I feel shame for that.”

Dr. Kingsley said the Independent Review Board sought to deal justice for the victim, mercy for the priest and reassurance to the person in the back row of the church.

He said that in the last decade or more, there has been no cover-up in this diocese. There has been no acting as if a priest was above civil or moral law, Dr. Kingsley said. In the event the Independent Review Board determines that sexual misconduct of a minor allegations against a priest are true, it may recommend to Bishop Boland that the priest be suspended and sent to one of several treatment centers for evaluation and treatment. The Review Board can also recommend that a priest’s faculties to act as a priest be permanently removed.

The diocesan policy states that any priest who is withdrawn from ministry on the recommendation of the Independent Review Board may not return to ministry except under certain strict conditions.

Without that recommendation a priest can never return to parish ministry or a ministry that includes access to minors.

“No children are ever to be placed at risk,” said Father Rush. If the Review Board recommends the priest be returned to ministry, he may do so only if he follows strict guidelines.

These include a psychiatric evaluation by a source chosen by the diocese, the results of which are made available to the board, the Response Team and the bishop for review.

The priest must have also undergone a suitable treatment program with a positive prognosis, and a supervised aftercare program which also is deemed successful. There must have been no further substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct, and the Review Board must recommend his return to a restricted ministry. He must agree in writing to the restrictions and his performance will be monitored by the Response Team’s administrator.

In other cases, the priest may be assigned to live in a supervised setting within the diocese, or resign from active ministry as a priest and request laicization.

While the written policy envisions the possibility of such a priest returning to ministry, the current policy and practice is more restrictive, reflecting Bishop Boland’s “zero tolerance” position with regard to sexual abuse.

In his March 21 homily at the Chrism Mass, Bishop Boland said, “Priests with this diagnosis (pedophilia) have no place as ministers in the church.” (Catholic Key, March 31)

In recent years, additional precautions have been taken with anyone dealing with children in this diocese.

Sister of Charity Jean Beste, vice-chancellor, said that since 1997, the diocese has run background checks on all new employees by contacting their previous employers.The diocesan school office runs a similar check with Missouri Division of Family Services for any record of child abuse.

Dr. Kingsley said that the Response Team and the Independent Review Board are both created to deal responsibly with the issues. He said the group acts in the spirit of Micah 6:8: “He has told you O mortal what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”


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