From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Review Board revitalized with new membership, greater autonomy

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the Oct. 3, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Photo:
Pat O’Donnell was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Spokane in 1971. Bishop Lawrence Welsh suspended him in the mid-1980s. (IR file photo)

Since the late 1980s, the Diocese of Spokane has had a Review Board to deal with instances of sexual misconduct.

That Board is now being revitalized, with new members and a new administrative policy to develop, approve and help implement.

The new Board will have responsibilities similar to those of its predecessor, said Father Steve Dublinski, Vicar General of the Spokane Diocese, during a recent interview at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Spokane.

The Board will review policies and procedures and make recommendations, where appropriate, he said.

They also will “assess allegations of sexual misconduct by church personnel in order to determine the credibility of accusations, and to recommend the disposition of particular cases,” he said.

An important point to emphasize, he said, is that the Board deals not just with sexual abuse, but with sexual misconduct - a much broader charge – not just regarding priests, but all diocesan personnel, clergy and laity alike.

Father Dublinski explained some of the process – what happens when an individual comes forward, reporting sexual misconduct of some kind on the part of a diocesan employee.

If the victim is a minor – “age 18 and younger” – the accusation is automatically reported to the civil authorities, he said. “Cooperation with law enforcement is a huge part of what we do when a minor is abused,” he said.

If the victim is an adult, “we support them in their reporting,” he said. “We would encourage them, tell them who to contact.”

The second step is for the diocese to provide counseling. “The bishop will pay for that counseling,” Father Dublinski said. “Counseling is offered when the report comes in.”

There has been a mistaken impression that counseling must come from Catholic Charities, he said – and it is a mistake.

Gene DiRe, Director of Counseling for Catholic Charities, has agreed to be assistance coordinator for the diocese, a resource person helping victims attain the counseling they need, in the form they need it.

“My role is one of providing assistance in whatever way reasonably possible to survivors of abuse,” said DiRe. The specifics of his activity have yet to be determined by the Board, he said, but “I know I’m there to provide assistance to survivors.”

DiRe also reiterated that the counseling must not come from Catholic Charities.

Those counseling reports, said Father Dublinski, are not seen by the diocese. “We simply get a bill,” he said.

As new victims have come forward, the new Board is a sign of the ongoing commitment of the diocese.

The old Board included a strong presence by priests. The new Board, however, has just one priest – Father Dublinski. Bishop Skylstad is not part of the Board. The rest of the members are lay professionals with expertise especially pertinent to matters of sexual misconduct.

Some confusion arises regarding the relationship of the priest and the diocese – and when a priest is not a priest.

There are several potential life situations for a priest, said Father Dublinski.

  • A priest who has an assignment within the diocese.
  • A priest without an assignment, but who has support from the diocese; for instance, a retired priest; someone on study leave; someone on medical leave. Even though they have no ministerial assignment, they are still entitled to support from the diocese.
  • A priest with suspended faculties. Faculties are somewhat akin to permissions to perform certain functions as a priest. A bishop may restrict those faculties - to preach, to celebrate Mass, to hear confessions, or others. Even with faculties withdrawn by the bishop, however, a priest would still be entitled to support.

    Different from those three situations, however, would be the issue of defrocking – removal of a priest, either willfully or not, from the clerical state.

    The process of defrocking is easier if the individual involved requests that, Father Dublinski said. An example might be a priest who has decided to leave the priesthood and marry, and wishes to be defrocked in order to do so.

    Sometimes, a priest is de-frocked against his will. That procedure is long and difficult, he said.

    In either case, the defrocking is recommended by the bishop to Rome. Rome supports or denies the request for defrocking.

    Part of what the U.S. bishops have requested is a streamlined process for defrocking priests who have been convicted of sexual abuse.

    And even though defrocked, the man is still a priest, but “may not function as a priest,” said Father Dublinski. Nor does the bishop have any role of supervision or oversight of the individual.

    There is also the situation of a suspended priest. A specific case would be that of Pat O’Donnell, he said.

    Bishop Welsh suspended O’Donnell in the mid-1980s. O’Donnell has not received support from the diocese since that time, said Father Dublinski.

    Most of the press attention has been given to priests who have committed sexual abuse of minors. It is also important to remember that the policy applies to all diocesan personnel, in whatever form of ministry – in parishes, in schools, elsewhere.

    Chairman for this new Board is Judge Phil Thompson of Spokane.

    Judge Thompson retired in 1997 after 11 years as a trial court judge and 14 years on the Court of Appeals. He is now working with a private law firm, mostly in mediation and arbitration.

    Like all other members of the new Board, he was approached by Bishop Skylstad to serve, and agreed.

    He had followed the news about the U.S. bishops’ meetings on the subject of sexual abuse, he said, “so I had a pretty good idea when he called that he wanted to establish a committee. “He did advise me that he was making an effort to cause a space between the previous committee” and the new Board, he said.

    The bishop wanted to separate the new Board from diocesan administration, said Judge Thompson, “to increase credibility, to make people feel more comfortable.” In that way, the Board would not be “a rubber stamp, or a reflection of” Bishop Skylstad’s judgement, he said. “Autonomy is part of the revitalization. The ultimate decision still rests with the bishop, but he truly wants a collection of minds to look at issues and make recommendations.”

    One way to achieve those goals, said the judge, was appointing new membership. One member carries over from the old Board – attorney Greg Arpin.

    Father Dublinski said that the new membership also “creates further objectivity, (with) more lay involvement.”

    The appointments are open-ended so far, with individuals agreeing to serve at the request of the bishop.

    At first, the Board will consider the diocese’s policy, hone it, improve it, and eventually approve it.

    Clearly the work will be difficult. “Once we reach decisions, it will give us some comfort knowing that we’re part of the process and achieving something the bishop is trying to achieve,” said Judge Thompson.

    “I would hope that people would regard it in the spirit that the bishop created it: a step toward openness and restoring the confidence in the bishop and the diocese that have always existed,” he said. “That’s part of our goal. And to reassure victims of the present and past that they will have a fair hearing and an ear if they raise concerns,” as the Board reviews facts presented to it and makes recommendations. Although the Board does not itself investigate, the judge said, “We would want victims and others who come forward to know that anything that’s brought to us, we’ll sincerely and seriously consider it.”

    “We are in this for the long haul.” Father Dublinski said. The bishop and the diocese are committed “to assist people as long as they need it. This is not a quick fix. The diocese is committed to doing whatever it takes.

    “We want to do everything we can to help victims,” said Father Dublinski. “Anyone who is struggling with past abuse by church personnel, we want them to come forward. We want to help them in any way we can to live a more full and healthy life.

    “We’re sorry this has happened to people,” he said. “This shouldn’t happen in the church, it shouldn’t happen in the family.”

    *****

    Diocesan Review Board membership, 2002

  • Judge Phil Thompson, Chair
  • Father Steve Dublinski, Vicar General, Diocese of Spokane
  • Greg Arpin, attorney
  • Susan Foster-Dow, social work
  • Susan Levernier, social work
  • Ron Miller, public school administration
  • Paul Wert, psychology


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