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Franciscans' response to 'horrific' child sex abuse scandal draws praise


At first there was just one known victim. A pre-adolescent boy had been sexually molested by two Franciscan monks at St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Soon, anxious parents wondered if there were more. In October 1992 -- several months after the first revelation -- two men stood up at a public meeting and said they, too, had been sexually abused as teen-agers at the seminary.

By the time an independent board of inquiry concluded its yearlong investigation this week, 34 boys had been found to have been molested by 11 monks over a 23-year period ending in 1987 when the seminary closed for financial reasons. The provincial minister of the order publicly called the findings a "terrible truth" and "horrific."

The investigation was notable for the number of abuse cases disclosed at one time, as well as for the Franciscans' resolve to investigate known cases and flush out any still hidden.

"It has to be one of the most horrible things I've heard of yet that a substantial portion of a seminary faculty would be corrupted that way," the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a Catholic sociologist and outspoken critic of the church's response to its sexual abuse crisis, said in an interview yesterday.

Still, Father Greeley said he was impressed by the Franciscans' response. "I can't say the California Franciscans are the first ones to [respond so comprehensively], but I'm impressed by what they did," Father Greeley said.

The panel found that the 34 cases of sexual abuse took place independently and that offending monks did not appear to be aware of each other's activities.

The Franciscans' investigation was not universally applauded, however. A spokeswoman for a victim's group said it was too little and too late.

Mary Staggs, founder of the Southern California chapter of the Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests, complained that only two of the monks involved have been publicly named and only one of them has been prosecuted.

"This only fosters further secrecy of abuse," she said. "These men should have been turned over to law enforcement immediately."

However, under the statute of limitations, it appears that none of the priests can be prosecuted, although they may still be civilly liable.

Still, by appointing an independent body, providing counseling and pastoral care for the victims and their families, and by removing the perpetrators from contact with young people, the Franciscans appear to have gone a long way toward practicing what the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are increasingly urging.

The bishops, meeting in Washington in November, called on the Vatican to lengthen the statute of limitations so that errant priests can be prosecuted under church law long after an offense has been committed.

Meanwhile, the attorney who headed the board of inquiry, Geoffrey Stearns, said he was surprised at his emotional reaction to 34 cases, even though he expected more allegations to surface.

"I guess I had a sense there was definitely more there. It was just a hunch. I had a feeling," Mr. Stearns said yesterday.

Of the 11 priests involved, eight were being treated by therapists, one has died, another's case is still being investigated, and one has left the order.

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