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NEWS STORY: New Orleans Archdiocese Alters Policy on Sex Abuse

c. 2000 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ A year after it shelved a parent’s warning that a Roman Catholic school teacher might be sexually molesting his students only to see the warning vindicated by the teacher’s arrest and imprisonment, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has decided to ask a panel of parents, psychologists and […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ A year after it shelved a parent’s warning that a Roman Catholic school teacher might be sexually molesting his students only to see the warning vindicated by the teacher’s arrest and imprisonment, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has decided to ask a panel of parents, psychologists and others to help it make the first crucial decisions about what to do in future such cases.

The changes come just a few days shy of the date last year when St. Charles Parish sheriff’s deputies arrested Brian Matherne and charged him with hundreds of counts of molesting his Catholic school students over many years, usually at a local duck hunting camp.

Matherne, who had been a popular sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher and coach at Sacred Heart School in suburban Norco, later pleaded guilty to molesting 17 boys over a period of 15 years. He is serving a 30-year term at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola without the possibility of early release.

The new policy creates a committee of approximately eight yet-to-be-named “mental health or social services professionals, parents, religious and clergy” to help evaluate a complaint of sexual abuse against an archdiocesan employee or volunteer, said Monsignor Tom Rodi, the archdiocese’s vicar general.

The committee is expected to help archdiocesan department heads make important early decisions in such cases, Rodi said, especially whether to suspend one of their employees, and whether to report the complaint to police when there is no legal obligation to do so.

Although the archdiocese sketched their credentials only broadly, the church wants the panel’s members to include experts with experience hearing stories of sexual abuse, Rodi said.

They may help a department head interview a person with a complaint, or do the interview themselves as part of the early evaluation, as the department head wishes.

“Any number of scenarios are possible,” Rodi said.

Rodi characterized the new policy as one of the more aggressive in the country in its written commitment to treat years-old complaints from adults as if they were fresh cases involving children. “We didn’t find another one like it in the country,” he said.

As a practical matter, however, spokesmen from a number of jurisdictions with well-regarded policies governing sex abuse of minors, such as Chicago and Belleville, Ill., have said they routinely apply the same investigative procedures to old complaints by adults, even if their policies do not say so.

In any event, “the proof is in the pudding,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, an information clearinghouse and advocacy group.

Too often, Clohessy said, church jurisdictions publish impressive sex abuse policies, but treat the pledges contained in them with an air of begrudged reluctance and foot-dragging.

“For example, a victim needs individual therapy, but the church offers only group therapy,” Clohessy said. “Or only from a Catholic social service agency, which may be the last place a victim wants to go.”

Stories he hears from people claiming to be victims of sexual abuse indicate that dioceses “frequently” violate their policies or fail to live up to their spirit, Clohessy said.

The changes alter the New Orleans archdiocese’s policy in two ways, Rodi said.

One mandates that the new panel of social service professionals, parents and priests be consulted “as soon as reasonably practicable” on a complaint of sexual abuse, even if the complaint is from an adult bringing an allegation that occurred years earlier.

In practice, New Orleans officials have sometimes taken the view, as they said they did in handling the Matherne complaint, that a young adult bringing an old charge of childhood abuse no longer is a minor, and thus outside the more rigorous procedures the archdiocese developed in 1993 for handling cases involving children.

The change also exposes complaints against lay employees and volunteers to the same level of outside evaluation as those against priests, Rodi said.

For many parents, one of the bitter ironies of the Matherne case was the disclosure that nearly a year before the teacher’s arrest, one victim’s father alerted the archdiocese that Matherne had molested his son 13 years earlier, and might still be molesting boys in his care. The father said the disclosure had recently emerged in his troubled 23-year-old son’s therapy sessions.

But the father told church authorities that his son, hurt and angry with the church, would not meet with any church officials to tell his story firsthand. Faced, in their evaluation, with an unsupported, secondhand accusation against an otherwise well-regarded employee, archdiocesan authorities left Matherne in place and decided not to notify police.

With the changes in place, Rodi said, an archdiocesan supervisor now must go to the new panel and ask for their judgment early on.

“He can say, `What do I do with this? I’ve heard of an accusation, but the person involved will not come forward. Do I report it? Do I not report it and let the victim go report it? … How do we handle this?”’

DEA END NOLAN