July 9, 2002--The recent disclosure of Catholic dioceses that have concealed instances of child sex abuse and left abusive priests unpunished obscures the reality that most dioceses in the United States have been addressing this problem for years.

A Post-Dispatch survey of the 178 Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States shows that at least 232 priests have been removed over the past two decades because of sexual misconduct with minors.

Sixty-six dioceses, over half of those responding to the survey, said their policy is to notify state authorities "immediately" whenever there is an allegation of sex abuse by anyone working at the diocese. The St. Louis Archdiocese said recently that it would report allegations to the Missouri Division of Family Services.

The survey shows that at least four-fifths of the dioceses responding rely on lay committees, not the church hierarchy alone, to assess allegations of sex abuse.

A relatively small number of the dioceses responding declined to release information on numbers of priests removed. That group includes several large dioceses, among them St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta and Denver. Officials at several of these dioceses and others also declined to discuss their policies on review and reporting of allegations, describing them as internal matters.

But officials at many other dioceses said they welcomed the opportunity to discuss policies that they say are well-entrenched, aggressive and far more successful than current media accounts might suggest.

A typical response was that of Marianna Thompson, communications director for the diocese of Paterson, N.J. She said the diocese had removed "four or five priests" during the 1980s but none since 1992, when the diocese distributed to all employees tough new rules for reporting suspected abuse.

"We tell them their responsibility is to call the Division of Youth and Family Services immediately and to bring in law enforcement," Thompson said. "We do not investigate ourselves," she added. "This is a crime. You have to go to the cops."

Fingerprints, background checks

The number of priests removed is small compared ot the total numbers currently in service: 30,555 in dicesan ministry and 15,386 more in religious orders. The cases of those removed involve sexual misconduct with teen-age boys and girls as well as younger children.

To church officials engaged with the issue at the dicese level, the fact that so many priests have already been culled from active ministry is a reminder that the Catholic church hasn't simply ignored the problem.

An example of tough policy and enforcement took place last Thursday in Washington where Monsignor Russell L. Dillard, pastor of St. Augustine Roman Cahtolic Church, was usspended from his duties because of allegations of sexual misconduct with two teen-age girls two decades ago.

Under Washington's policy on child sex abuse, first imposed in 1985 and updated in 1993, allegations of abuse are immediately reported to law enforcement authorities, and priests or others accused are automatically suspended. "Every case is difficult and fortunately we don't have many," said diocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. The diocese has removed five priests because of sexual misconduct over the past two decades, she said - none for any instance of abuse more recent than 1991.

"We've talked to our seminarians who are concerned, who ask why do we report these allegations to the civil authorities?" Gibbs said. "We say one, because it's a crime and children's safety has to be protected. And two, so that it can be investigated properly.

"We tell the seminarians that this is to protect you, to make sure that this is investigated correctly," she said. "They're the professional investigators; we're not."

Another diocese that mandates reporting of allegations to state authorities is Providence, R.I., where 12 priests have been removed for sexual misconduct over the past 15 years and seven more are currently suspended. Spokesman Bill Halpin said the diocese employs its own full-time investigator - a retired Massachusetts state police officer - who reports his findings to authorities

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