Priests' Rights Could Be Next Victim of Church's Scandal

Boston, Mar. 4--(AP) With the Archdiocese of Boston suspending priests on suspicion of child molestation and turning their names over to prosecutors, some are warning that the Roman Catholic church is moving too fast and that priests' rights are being trampled.

"It's almost like a movie--you're convicted and then they try you," said Michael Higgins, a former priest who is the head of Justice for Priests and Deacons, an organization founded by canon lawyers in 1997 to defend the rights of Catholic clergy. "The bishops are running scared, and the bottom line is they want to protect the diocesan coffers." In the past month, church officials have given prosecutors the names of 80 priests accused over the past half-century of molesting children. Names of the accused were included in news releases, and 10 active priests were suspended, some evicted from their rectories.

Following the eruption of the Boston scandal, Catholic dioceses across the United States have been under pressure to rid themselves of any priests with a history of sexual misconduct. In California, up to a dozen priests have been ordered to retire. None of the priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese are believed to be involved in recent cases of sexual abuse involving minors, according to a report Monday in the Los Angeles Times.

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The cases occurred as far back as 10 years ago and all the priests had undergone psychological counseling, an unidentified church source told the newspaper. But it was unclear whether the Archdiocese of Los Angeles would give the priests' names to law enforcement authorities.

The cost of past, pending and future sexual abuse claims against the Boston Archdiocese could reach 100 million.

Critics who say the system assumes the accused are guilty point to the case of the Rev. D. George Spagnolia. After he criticized church officials and priests over the sexual abuse scandal, he was accused recently of molesting a boy 31 years ago. The archdiocese stripped him of his parish and ordered him to move out of the rectory. His name was turned over to prosecutors, and a news release faxed to reporters identified him as the 10th suspended priest. "All of us are going to be fed to the wolves," Spagnolia said.

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Robert O'Neill
Associated Press
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