When Roman Catholic activist Peter Isely found out last week that his church's proposed plan for dealing with sex abuse by priests could give bishops complete oversight of investigations, and will involve secret tribunals, he was very angry. Last June, after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops proposed a zero-tolerance policy and vowed to be accountable to the faithful, Isely--who was raped by a priest when he was 13--had hope. But the Vatican, concerned about false accusations, demanded revisions. Now, as the American bishops gather this week in Washington, D.C., to officially adopt their compromise plan, Isely and other victims' advocates say the church is taking a big step in the wrong direction. "In June, the bishops seemed to have finally understood that the culture of secrecy was the ultimate problem," says Isely, a founding member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Now they're going right back to it."
In a clear effort to mute such criticism, last week the bishops named Kathleen McChesney--the No. 3 official at the FBI and the agency's highest-ranking woman--to head their newly created Office for Child and Youth Protection. The announcement came just three days after the new plan was unveiled. McChesney says she'll work with the bishops to ensure abuse complaints are handled according to church guidelines. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Even though she's spent decades in the FBI, McChesney won't be investigating allegations herself. And although her job is to monitor how well the bishops comply with their new sex-abuse policy, she told NEWSWEEK that she doesn't know if she'll be privy to the workings of the secret courts that will hear the cases. She took the job, she says, to reassure her fellow Catholics. "Hopefully, people will begin to see that things have changed," says McChesney.
But critics of the new policy say it's the same old story. Instead of allowing laypeople to oversee church investigations of sex-abuse complaints, the revised plan gives that job to the bishops, many of whom have mishandled these kinds of cases in the past. In order to decide whether an accused priest is fit to serve, the bishops are instructed to convene secret tribunals. But that could further cloud an already shadowy process. "I'm skeptical tribunals could be useful," says the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former canon lawyer and expert on sex abuse by the clergy. "If tribunals had the capacity to take on these kinds of issues, they would have been handling them for decades."
Church courts have been used for centuries, most recently by Catholics seeking annulments and by members of the clergy embroiled in employment disputes. Though exactly how they will handle sex-abuse cases is unclear, church law dictates that neither the alleged victim nor the accused be allowed to testify in person or even to attend the proceedings. Instead, their interests are represented by canon lawyers, usually priests. The cases are then decided by a judge or panel of judges, who are also usually members of the clergy.
Some canon lawyers caution that using tribunals to handle the flood of newly disclosed sex-abuse cases may actually slow efforts to weed out abusers. In smaller dioceses, there will simply not be enough priests trained in canon law to handle the work. And of the 1,800 or so canon lawyers worldwide, very few have the kind of experience they'd need. If, as expected, the proposal is approved by the bishops this week, and accepted by the pope, hundreds of canon lawyers will head back to school. "There will definitely be a need for some retooling," said the Rev. Kevin McKenna, past president of the Canon Law Society of America. And that means still more delays for a frustrated and impatient flock.