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Published: Saturday, 6/15/2002

Lack of leeway troubles Toledo bishop

WASHINGTON POST

DALLAS - Throughout the Catholic bishops' deliberations yesterday, as they struggled to define sexual abuse and weighed the requirements of canon and civil law, Bishop James Hoffman of Toledo had difficulty keeping his mind on abstractions.

He kept thinking about Father Fisher.

After the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States voted for a policy requiring the removal from ministry of any priest who has committed sexual misconduct with a minor, Bishop Hoffman realized he might have to return to the Diocese of Toledo and tell the Rev. Robert Fisher that his career is over.

Hard as it was for the bishops to arrive at a nationwide policy, the truly hard part lies ahead: enforcing it.

The policy seems stringent. Some are thinking about whether they could find other roles within the church for certain offenders.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declared after the vote that “from this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States.”

But the policy doesn't quite say that. It says child sexual abusers will be “permanently removed from ministry” - and much could turn on the definition of “ministry,” which is not spelled out in the document itself.

Bishop Hoffman, for example, must now decide what to do about Father Fisher, 48, who was convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl in 1988, served 30 days in jail and spent four years in therapy and counseling. From 1992 until early this year, he served as pastor of St. Michael's Church in Toledo, with overwhelming support from its parishioners, who were fully informed of his past.

“I know the people at St. Michael's, and with very few exceptions, they're behind him,” Bishop Hoffman said.

In May, as the sexual abuse scandal reverberated throughout the church, Bishop Hoffman placed Father Fisher on administrative leave, despite protests from parishioners.

He told the people of St. Michael's that he would wait for the Dallas meeting to provide guidance on Father Fisher's future. He said yesterday that he fully intends to carry out the policy adopted here, and he acknowledged that it does not seem to allow much leeway in cases like Father Fisher's.

But, he said, “I suppose I'll begin by re-reading the whole document. Sometimes you think a document says one thing, but when you leave the room and read it later, it's not so clear.”

Before they got to Dallas, the draft policy under consideration by the bishops would have required the “laicization,” or removal from the priesthood, of any priest who commits child sexual abuse in the future.

It would have allowed an exception, however, for some offenders who had committed a single act of abuse in the past, had undergone psychological treatment and had not been diagnosed as pedophiles. Father Fisher could easily have fit into that exception.

In Dallas, victims' groups angrily decried the “loophole” for one-time abusers, and the bishops removed it. But in a closed session Thursday night, they also removed the requirement of laicization, which is now left to the discretion of individual bishops.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said he believes the prohibition on ministry extends to any formal assignment, including administrative work. But Bishop Hoffman said he is relieved that he does not have to seek Father Fisher's dismissal from the priesthood, and might be able to find some constructive role for him.

The possibility that men such as Father Fisher could remain priests, possibly in jobs that are not considered “ministry” by their bishops, infuriates victims' groups.

Policies in many ways are abstractions, but priests such as Father Fisher are real men.

“We all want to protect children,” Bishop Hoffman said. “And we're all worried about these borderline cases.”



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