ST. FRANCIS – In an open letter to the media June 17, Fr. James Connell, the lone priest member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Review Board for Cases of Clergy Sexual Abuse of Minors, has taken issue with the sexual abuse reporting policies of the Diocese of La Crosse.
Fr. Connell, vice chancellor of the archdiocese and pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Parish and St. Clement Parish, Sheboygan, criticized the “moral certitude” standard employed by the Diocese of La Crosse’s review board in assessing an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon.
“In other words, because the review board is requiring more of the person making the allegation than is necessary to establish the ‘semblance of truth’ or that the allegation ‘at least seems true,’ the possibility exists that the review board will determine that some allegations do not need to be forwarded to the (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), thus allowing priests or deacons who should be removed from ministry to actually continue in ministry. And this could endanger children,” wrote Fr. Connell, a canon lawyer.
In an interview with your Catholic Herald, James Birnbaum, attorney for the Diocese of La Crosse and ex officio member of its review board, called the priest’s claim “utterly untrue.”
“What is particularly disappointing is at no point does he operate with any knowledge of what we do here in La Crosse,” the attorney said. “His exclusive knowledge is going to the Web site and engaging on a highly technical issue of canon law and proceeding to carry on a discourse despite the fact he was aware that the Diocese of La Crosse took his comments seriously and acted on them.”
Fr. Connell refers to the La Crosse review board as using an “incorrect standard of proof,” and questions whether or not other dioceses in the country might be doing the same.
“… future diocesan audits of their compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, especially regarding the Diocesan Review Boards, should identify the actual standard of proof that is used when reviewing allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or a deacon,” said Fr. Connell as to why he brought the matter to the attention of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ National Review Board.
Birnbaum disagreed with the priest’s contention that the board was using an “incorrect standard of proof.”
“The concern he has is an interpretation of canon law. He raises a concern about what standard the board applied, but he ignored the rest of the language of the policy,” the attorney said. “The board has consistently used ‘sufficiently confirmed’ (in reviewing allegations), which is not the high standard.”
Fr. Connell wrote that, after three months of being “unable to generate a sense of priority and urgency among the local and national church leaders” about his concerns, he chose to go public with them.
“In other words, not only do I feel a strong moral obligation to have my concern resolved, but Catholic Church law authorizes and empowers me to do so,” he wrote, citing canon 212.3 in the Code of Canon Law.
In a written response to Fr. Connell’s letter, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, who served as bishop of La Crosse from 2004 until his installation as archbishop on Jan. 4, said he had personally assured Fr. Connell “that no child was at risk in the Diocese of La Crosse because of the policies and protocols in place.”
“I personally pledged to Fr. Connell that the Diocesan Review Board in La Crosse, as well as the new bishop of La Crosse, upon his installation, would examine its policies to determine if changes were needed and review those with the new diocesan bishop,” Archbishop Listecki wrote. “Since then, the leadership of the diocese, along with its review board, has re-examined past cases to ensure the safety and protection of young people.”
Birnbaum noted that of the 10 cases the board reviewed between 2003-2009, nine of the 10 priests were either dead or out of ministry.
“Only one person was in ministry. That allegation was unsubstantiated under any measure of burden of truth,” he said.
Bishop William P. Callahan, who was named bishop of La Crosse on June 11 and will be installed Aug. 11, said in a separate statement, “… as the newly named bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, one of my immediate responsibilities will be to make sure the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is effectively implemented, which includes the activities and policies of the Diocesan Review Board. I remain steadfast to our commitment that no priest with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor ever serves in public ministry.”
Near the conclusion of his letter, Fr. Connell wrote, “If the Catholic Church is serious about safeguarding children and young people, then the church leaders should prove me wrong or immediately begin corrective action, thus demonstrating that protecting minors from sexual abuse is a matter of highest priority and urgency.”
Birnbaum said that the policy will be examined after Bishop Callahan is installed.
“The language of the policy needs to be addressed … How do you define ‘sufficiently confirmed’? That technicality is going to be addressed very quickly,” he said. “I’m not certain there needs to be changes with how the board has applied the burden of proof.”
Describing the review board, which includes a canonist, a practicing trial attorney, a retired police detective who investigated sex abuse crimes against adults and children; and a practicing clinical psychologist who wrote protocols for child protective services of La Crosse County, as “conscientious,” Birnbaum said Fr. Connell’s remarks were a “great, great insult to their competency and integrity. To suggest that this board would permit any person that presented any risk to children would be allowed to continue to do that is highly defamatory, highly irresponsible.”