La Crosse diocese's policy on sex abuse cases criticized
Milwaukee archdiocese's Connell says vetting standard puts children at risk
By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel
The standard used to vet clergy sex abuse cases involving children in the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse appears to violate church law and may be putting young people at risk, a canon lawyer and high-ranking priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee said Thursday.
Vice Chancellor James Connell, who serves on the Milwaukee archdiocese's sex abuse review board, said La Crosse's policy dictates a high burden of proof that may have caused the diocese to return abusive priests to ministry, and he called on church officials there to re-examine all cases in which it was used.
Connell went public with his concerns in an open letter to Catholics on Thursday after three months of trying unsuccessfully to persuade state and national church officials, including Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, who last served in La Crosse, to change the standard.
"Sometimes we've got to bring our problems to the Christian laity," said Connell, who cited a canon law provision that allows, and at times requires, church officials to make public matters of importance to the church.
The La Crosse diocese issued a statement Thursday calling Connell's concerns unfounded and insisting no child in the diocese is at risk. [see below]
Diane Knight, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board on clergy sex abuse issues, which also reviewed his allegations, said Connell raises "cause for concern," but that her board did not have the authority to impose policy changes on a diocese.
Listecki, in Florida for a retreat with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reiterated La Crosse's assertion that children are safe there. But he said Auxiliary Bishop William Callahan would review the policies when he takes over as the La Crosse bishop in August.
Standard of proof
At issue is the standard of proof used by La Crosse's Child Sexual Abuse Review Board in evaluating whether there is enough evidence to pursue a case against a priest or deacon.
Vatican law requires that any case in which the allegations "at least seem true" or there is a "semblance of truth" must be forwarded to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Connell likens that to the low "probable cause" standard required to pursue criminal charges in civil law.
But the La Crosse diocese's website lists the review board standard as "moral certitude," a higher bar akin to the civil law's "beyond a reasonable doubt," which would make it more difficult for victims to prevail at the review board.
Connell questions whether that high standard contributed to La Crosse's high rate of siding with clergy over victims in such cases. A 2004 review by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that La Crosse exonerated clergy in 64% of cases between 1950 and 2002, compared with the national average of under 10%.
In its statement Thursday, La Crosse said it has reviewed cases before the board but found none that was incorrectly decided, though it was unclear how far that review went.
La Crosse said its review board uses a standard of "sufficiently confirmed," and describes that as a lower standard of proof than "beyond a reasonable doubt." It did not respond to a question asking why the procedures on the website list it as "moral certitude."
Connell said he came across the La Crosse provision while researching how that diocese handled sex abuse cases in advance of a meeting Listecki planned with the Milwaukee review board.
"I wasn't out looking for something," he said. His concerns were heightened, he said, hearing from both Listecki and victims about La Crosse's 64% rate of siding with priests.
Father Tom Reese, senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said Connell raises serious issues, which, if true, "are in clear violation of church norms and should be revised." In defense of La Crosse, however, he said, such change likely can only be made by a sitting bishop, and so would have to wait for Callahan.
He called it shocking that the national audit process didn't catch the discrepancy and said the conference should re-audit norms for review boards.
"The fact that these norms were drawn up under (then-La Crosse) Bishop Raymond Burke, who is now the head of the Vatican Signatura, the highest court in the church, is also disturbing," Reese said. "Archbishop Burke is known for taking positions not held by most canon lawyers."
Criticized and lauded
Connell has been both criticized and lauded for his efforts.
In a May letter to the National Review Board, La Crosse administrator Monsignor Richard Gilles called Connell's statements "careless and insulting."
"They appeared to be of the nature which we have grown to expect from the irresponsible public utterances of SNAP," Gilles said.
But victims and advocates - some of whom had previously criticized Connell's role on the Milwaukee review board - on Thursday called him courageous.
"It took an incredible amount of courage for him to do that," said John Pilmaier, co-director of the Wisconsin SNAP.
Knight, of the National Review Board, called Connell's actions a matter of conscience.
"Father Jim is operating out of a genuine concern for children," she said.
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Diocese of La Crosse - June 17, 2010
The Diocese of La Crosse has just learned that a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, with no knowledge of the Diocese of La Crosse, has issued a public statement criticizing the Diocese of La Crosse for not timely addressing his personal highly technical opinion of church law.
The Diocese took immediate steps to address his technical church law question and both reviewed with and retained independent canonical counsel to address that question. (See attached correspondence to the USCCB from the Diocesan Administrator Msgr. Richard Gilles dated April 29, 2010 and May 11, 2010.) As explained in the policy, the standard applied by the Diocese of La Crosse Child Sexual Abuse Review Board is “sufficiently confirmed”, a lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
In addition, an immediate review of all cases before the Board occurred to determine if, in any case, a finding of insufficiency was based upon any canonical technicality. The Diocese of La Crosse Child Sexual Abuse Review Board includes its Chair, a practicing attorney who previously was a state public defender; a retired police detective sergeant who investigated child sexual abuse cases; and a clinical psychologist who drafted La Crosse County’s Child Sexual Abuse Review protocols, all members well qualified to make such judgments. No such cases exist. The Board is confident that no child in the Diocese of La Crosse is at risk from any clergy.
The Diocese of La Crosse complies with both the letter and the spirit of the law by reporting and cooperating with authorities regarding all complaints of child sexual abuse. The best evidence of the effectiveness of the Diocese of La Crosse Safe Environment Program is that there have been no current confirmed cases of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of La Crosse by clergy since the very public prosecution and conviction in Marathon County in 2001 of Timothy Svea, a member of a Religious Institute. In that case, the Diocese both immediately reported the accusation and assisted the civil authorities in that conviction.
Despite any conjecture to the contrary, the Diocese of La Crosse is confident that all aspects of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People are being applied and enforced and that its children are safe.
This article was found at:
Letter from Diocesan Administrator Msgr. Richard W. Gilles to members of the USCCB National Review Board
Updated letter from Msgr. Richard Gilles to USCCB National Review Board
Statement from Jerome E. Listecki, Archbishop of Milwaukee
Letter from Reverend James E. Connell to all interested parties