U.S. bishops tracking foreign priest abuse complaints

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

For the first time, American Catholic bishops have begun tracking complaints of sexual abuse against foreign-trained priests working in this country, raising questions about the screening process in place in U.S. dioceses.

In the U.S. bishops' most recent annual survey, church officials reported that of the 21 clergy sex abuse complaints made in 2009 by minors, nine involved priests sent by overseas dioceses. The information comes when the U.S. church is importing hundreds of priests and has been under intense scrutiny for its handling of sex abuse cases, including the movement of abusers from one country to another.

Though it's only one year of data and does not include details about any of the cases, the number of accusations involving foreign-trained priests has prompted debate within the church and among advocates for victims.

Are American dioceses stringent enough in screening priests who come from parts of the world where abuse might be less likely to be reported and background checks less coordinated? Where the definition of sex crimes and the attitude toward pre-ordination psychological testing might be different? Could the complaints sometimes be cultural misunderstandings?

Regardless, U.S. bishops are paying more attention to the subject, and for the first time required dioceses in 2008 to spell out what screening procedures they have in place for foreign priests. It did same last year.

"It started popping up, so we started to zero in on international priests," said Mary Jane Doerr, associate director for the office of Child and Youth Protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's a murky issue, so we're trying to do the best we can."

Screening varies widely. The Diocese of Corpus Christi, Tex., which reported last year that it had 91 priests from overseas, requires only a letter of recommendation and liability from the bishop in the priest's home country. The Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., which also had 91 overseas priests, requires the bishop in the priest's home country to send an affidavit that the priest has never been charged criminally, has no behavioral problems "that would indicate he might deal with minors in an inappropriate manner," and has undergone background checks by immigration and embassy officials.

The Arlington Diocese, with 56 priests from abroad, requires fingerprints and Child Protective Services checks, as well as a home visit for priests from Latin or Central America. It also requires the priest's home diocese to fill out an "extensive questionnaire." The Washington Archdiocese, which has 16 foreign priests, requires fingerprints and child protection training in their home diocese.

Experts on screening and canon law say the church has no detailed specific standards for priest training, and it varies around the world. But several times in recent decades -- including in 2008 -- the Vatican has encouraged seminaries to use psychological screening when considering candidates for the priesthood.

"There's a variability of psychological resources and funds available to do screening," said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a former president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, the world's largest psychological treatment center for Catholic clergy. The bishops' report says that of the 21 allegations made in 2009 by minors, five were found "credible," 11 remain under investigation and five were unfounded. Those categories did not distinguish between foreign-trained and American-born priests.

The challenges involved in priests moving around the world were evident this month when an Indian priest accused of repeatedly molesting a 16-year-old girl in Minnesota was found working in an administrative education job back home despite pleas by a Minnesota bishop that he be returned to the United States to face his accuser. Earlier this week, an Indian priest who pleaded no contest in 2006 to assault on a 15-year-old during a summer stint in the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese was found working in a parish in Italy.

"Seminaries in other countries have not benefited from the scrutiny that U.S. seminaries received after 2002," said Terence McKiernan of the abuse-tracking nonprofit BishopAccountability.org.

While the U.S. church does not keep track of how many foreign-trained priests are in ministry in this country, experts says the number has been rising for years, partly because of the decrease in American men going into the priesthood, but also because the church has solicited priests from Latin America to minister to the booming U.S. Latino population.

The Rev. Aniedi Okure, a Nigerian-born priest who trained foreign clergy for years for the U.S. bishops, said he thinks cultural differences -- not screening deficiencies -- can sometimes cause problems. "Many priests from other countries are more affectionate, in terms of crossing boundaries, touching people," he said. "It depends what is the nature of the abuse allegations. In the mind of the priest, it may not have been an improper touch."

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