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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Catholic sexual abuse scandal that is roiling Europe has also put the church under renewed scrutiny here in the U.S. Since its own scandal almost a decade ago, the U.S. church has vowed to remove from ministry every priest who is credibly accused of abuse.

But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, some of those priests are now quietly being reinstated.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Juan Rocha(ph) was 12 years old when he says he was molested by his parish priest, Father Eric Swearingen. He eventually brought his complaints to the bishop of Fresno, John Steinbock. When Steinbock said he did not find the allegations credible, Rocha sued the priest and the diocese in civil court.

In 2006, the jury found 9 to 3 that Swearingen had abused Juan Rocha. But it could not decide whether the diocese knew about it. Rather than go through a new trial, the two sides settled. At the time, Bishop Steinbock said he thought the jury got it wrong and that while the Catholic Church should protect children, quote: doing this cannot be done in such a manner as to punish innocent priests.

Mr. JEFFREY ANDERSON (Attorney): Bishop Steinbock continues Swearingen in ministry to this day.

HAGERTY: Rocha's attorney, Jeffrey Anderson.

Mr. ANDERSON: Choosing to believe the priest is innocent, choosing to protect the priest, and choosing to disregard entirely the judicial finding by a jury that found he had committed the crime of sexual abuse against Juan.

HAGERTY: Today, Father Swearingen serves as priest at Holy Spirit Parish in Fresno, where he also oversees the youth ministry. Swearingen did not return phone calls. And Bishop Steinbock denied repeated requests for an interview.

Swearingen's case is not an isolated one, says Anne Barrett Doyle. Doyle works for the watchdog group BishopsAccountability.org. She says recently, bishops have started quietly returning priests who have been accused of abuse back to ministry.

Ms. ANNE BARRETT DOYLE (Bishop-accountability.org): I think they feel that the crisis has died down in the public mind and therefore, they have some confidence that if they go ahead and reinstate these priests, that they'll get very little backlash.

HAGERTY: Doyle and others have identified about a dozen clergy who have been accused, arrested or sued for abuse and returned to ministry. She says the process for investigating priests is secret. And often, the diocese says nothing about the charges against a priest when it returns him to ministry.

Take the case of Father Michael Fuji(ph), a priest in Newark, New Jersey. In 2003, a jury convicted him in a criminal trial of molesting a teenage boy. Later, an appellate court overturned the verdict because of the judge's instruction. Rather than undergo a new trial, the prosecutors and the archdiocese of New Jersey agreed Fuji would be kept away from children.

So when officials at a local hospital learned that Fuji was serving as a volunteer chaplain who said Mass and ministered to families, they were horrified. Archbishop John Myers declined to speak on the record. But his spokesman says Fuji's assignment was only temporary and did not involve regular ministry to children. The case is troubling even to the church's internal watchdog.

Ms. TERESA KETTELKAMP (Office of Child and Youth Protection): If there is a credible allegation, they're out of public ministry, period.

HAGERTY: Teresa Kettelkamp oversees the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She says there are no exceptions to this policy.

Ms. KETTELKAMP: There's not a caveat that says you're out of public ministry, but you can volunteer at Goodwill. You're out of public ministry, but you can be a priest over at Feed the Children. No, it's very clear; they're out of public ministry.

HAGERTY: But, she points out, the church also has to take the rights of priests into account, especially those who have been cleared. She says in the outside world, if a person is found not guilty of abuse...

Ms. KETTELKAMP: We don't then send you to prison, or we don't banish you or put you on some registry that says you've been charged with a crime. You're returned to full status as a citizen. And I think this is a similar analogy in the church.

HAGERTY: Kettelkamp says since 2002, the bishops have adopted strict policies to identify abusers and keep them away from children. But how to interpret those rules is left up to each individual bishop. Though they have to report cases involving minors to the police, what constitutes abuse is left to their discretion. And that means the public does not trust them, says Anne Burke.

Burke served for three years on the national board that the bishops set up to review how they're handling sex abuse claims. She says she's dismayed that many bishops have failed to disclose even the basics.

Justice ANNE BURKE (Illinois Appellate Court): I haven't seen any public documents that - shows how many cases they've had, what the outcomes have been, and if any of those matters have been forwarded to Rome. So, it's really hard to speculate on what actually is happening in the United States. And I think it's a good question that we all should probably get some answers to. And I'm not exactly sure where to go to get those answers.

HAGERTY: But with new scandals erupting overseas, people are looking for those answers once again.

NORRIS: That's NPR's religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. And Barbara joins me now in the studio. Talk a little bit more about this topic. Barbara, you mentioned that many people don't trust the bishops to handle allegations of sexual abuse because the process is so opaque. Can you explain for us how that process works?

HAGERTY: First, let me just say right off the bat that everyone I talked to, even the critics, believe that the Catholic bishops are far more aggressive than they used to be in looking for signs of abuse and in protecting children. The problem is, as you said, the process is not transparent. So, let me walk you through it. Generally, if a minor comes to the church and says he's been abused, the church is supposed to remove the priest from ministry immediately and turn the information over to the police.

Now, I've found in my own reporting that that doesn't always happen because sometimes the church investigator might not think that the claim is credible. But if the alleged victim is no longer a minor, then it gets even more complicated. The bishop decides whether the person is making a valid claim. Then, if he thinks the victim may have been abused, the bishop gives the claim to his review board, which is made up of clergy and laypeople appointed by the bishop.

The review board then investigates, and the board makes a recommendation. But here's the thing: The bishop does not have to follow that recommendation. And there's not much anyone can do about it - except maybe to sue. But in most of these cases, the statute of limitations has run.

NORRIS: So the bishops have a lot of power.

HAGERTY: They have a lot of discretion.

NORRIS: Now, Barbara, you've also noted that there are stricter policies to protect children. Do those policies apply to all priests?

HAGERTY: No. There is a huge exception. Religious orders are not bound by the bishop's rule. So the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Silesians, the Franciscans, a lot of these priests work with children in schools and universities. Those rules don't necessarily apply to them. Now, many of these orders do say that they follow the bishop's policies, but it's voluntary. They don't have to do it.

And the attorneys that I talked to say that the problem of cover-up is much worse in the religious orders. And in part, that's because it's so easy to move priests around - not just from parish to parish, but city to city and country to country.

So, for example, I did a story a couple of years back about a Dominican priest named Aaron Cote, who was a known abuser. He was transferred from Washington, D.C., to Ohio, to Peru, to Massachusetts and then finally to Rhode Island before he finally was sued and removed from ministry.

So obviously, Michele, whether in a parish or in a religious order, most priests are wonderful people; they care for kids, they don't abuse kids. But the church really has a long way to go before the public trusts them again.

NORRIS: Barbara, thank you very much.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

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