VOLUME 33, NUMBER 29 THURSDAY, June 27, 2002

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Testing bishop's directives
Mangold predicts follow up will "stall" in some dioceses

Contributing Editor

While the recent gathering of the Catholic Church's United States Conference of Bishops in Dallas provides a national framework for the reporting of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, the true test of the church's position on the issue and the effectiveness of the policy is likely to play out on the local level, according to a UB expert in child advocacy and law.

"The success of the Dallas conference is going to depend not on what has happened up until now, but on what we see from here on out," said Susan Vivian Mangold, associate professor of law and director of the university's interdisciplinary Baldy Center Program on Children, Families and Society.

Although the conference laid out a broad charter of changes that need to occur, such as the reporting of cases immediately to civil authorities and the removal of offending priests from active ministry, real action easily could be stymied, she said.

"It would be very easy to make the Dallas conference meaningless by keeping the status quo at the local level. I won't be surprised if that happens in a number of dioceses," said Mangold, a practicing Catholic.

The conference produced the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, Deacons and Other Church Personnel," as well as the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

"The norms were less publicized and require the approval of the Holy See. If there is no local pressure to change the environment for reporting and to put supports in place for victims who come forward, the local diocese can stall by awaiting approval of the norms by the Holy See," warned Mangold.

The charter calls for the establishment of review boards composed of a majority of lay people who are not diocesan employees to assess allegations against priests and their fitness for ministry. Mangold emphasized that these boards should not do any preliminary investigations.

"All allegations must be immediately referred to civil authorities who have the expertise and the services to deal with the allegations," she said.

The effectiveness of the boards in changing local policies and practices will hinge on who is named to the group. "Change at the local level must come from civil professionals; the church does not have the expertise, nor the trust of the community, to handle these matters," Mangold said.

Although the charter also calls for sanctions against priests who have committed abuse in the past, Mangold expressed concerns over how that would be carried out.

"Who is going to determine which priests committed sexual abuse in the past, and how will the public be informed? How will we know the list of offending priests is a complete one, given the church's past attempts to keep these allegations quiet?" she asked.

Enforcement of the charter requires local reporting to newly created oversight agencies at the National Conference of Bishops. Those mechanisms will be only as effective as the information that is gathered and reported out in each diocese.

"It is important to understand that one of the reasons we haven't heard more allegations is because the Catholic Church has not created an environment that encourages people to speak out," she said.

Mangold added that children need to know that it is all right to tell someone when abuse has occurred, and parents need to be open to those messages from their children. Then, they need to go to civil authorities, not their local parish.

"A history of strong authority and layers of secrecy in the church shouldn't allow us to kid ourselves and believe there is not current abuse. We cannot minimize the power exerted in a variety of ways to keep allegations quiet," Mangold said.

"Coming out of Dallas is the question: Have we started to create an environment where kids and parents will come forward to report abuse by the clergy?" Mangold asked. "What occurs at the local level in terms of changing policies and practices holds the answer to that question."