The diocese that oversees the Roman Catholic churches throughout Eastern Oregon has adopted a tough, one-strike-and-you're-out policy in dealing with priests who have sexually abused children.
The Most Rev. Robert F. Vasa, bishop of the Diocese of Baker, announced in October the revised policy of the diocese on how Catholic congregations in Central and Eastern Oregon will deal with child sex abuse.
The policy revisions came at the close of a year in which many allegations surfaced of Catholic priests who had sexually molested children and teenagers.
The controversy came to a head on Dec. 13, when Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston amid allegations that he chose to keep in ministry Catholic priests who had sexually abused children and adolescents.
In a letter to parishioners, Vasa called the news of the sexual abuse of minors by priests "very disheartening and discouraging."
"I can tell you in all honesty that nothing tears at my heart more severely than the thought that a child may have been harmed by a priest or worse, that one could be harmed by a priest assigned by me," said Vasa, who presides over the diocese in Bend.
The bishop said a review committee from the diocese approved a policy stating that any cleric proven to have committed even a single act of child abuse "shall be permanently removed from ministry in or for the Diocese of Baker in accord with the provisions of canon law.
"An offending cleric may be offered professional assistance for his own healing and well-being as well as the purpose of prevention if this is deemed to be warranted by the Diocesan Review Committee."
The diocese has a slightly different response to priests accused of non-sexual abuse of a child.
"Any cleric proven to have physically or emotionally abused or mistreated a minor shall be temporarily removed from office, offered professional counseling and thoroughly evaluated for fitness for ecclesiastical duties," the policy states
The cleric will not be offered a new assignment in the Baker Diocese unless it is clear that "he represents no threat, after proper evaluation, to the well being of the children."
The Baker Diocese policy has a four-pronged approach in preventing child sex abuse:
Screening: All current and future Diocesan personnel, including clerics, members of religious orders, lay employees and volunteers, who in any manner have access to children or young people shall submit to a background check.
Education: All diocesant personnel, especially those whose ministerial duties involve minors, will be required to attend presentations and training dealing with the prevention, recognition and reporting requirements of child abuse.
Instruction for children: A curriculum for all school children in Baker Diocese Catholic schools will include teaching children about safe touch, instructing them about appropriate boundaries for adults, and giving them support and guidance about reporting abuse to appropriate adults.
Diocesan Review Committee: A committee, appointed by the bishop, shall have expertise in matters related to child abuse. The committee will meet at least annually to assist Bishop Vasa in implementing the "statutes for the protection of children."
Father Jim Logan, chancellor for the Diocese of Baker, said screening of Catholic ministers is an important prevention tool.
"Extensive psychological screening of candidates has been undertaken for at least the last 25 years in seminary, along with extensive attempts to educate seminarians on what it takes to live a healthy celibate life," Logan told The Observer.
Logan said while it is impossible to guarantee that no molesters have passed such screening, "it is worth noting that in the vast majority of accusations that have arisen in the last year in Oregon against Catholic clergy, the alleged offenses date back 20 to 40 years."
All parish employees and volunteers in the diocese who have any contact with children must submit to a background check, Logan noted.
"No one is exempt from this requirement. Even Bishop Vasa has submitted to such a check."
Logan said, "Cooperation with civil authorities is a must" when looking into allegations of child sexual abuse.
"The ... policy of the diocese is clear that all ministers and volunteers in the parishes who are mandatory reporters must comply with the law, and those who are not mandatory reporters are also encouraged to make reports of suspected abuse to civil authorities."
Logan also spoke about the part of the diocese policy that requires a priest who is guilty of child abuse to be permanently removed from ministry.
"It is abundantly clear that a priest who has been known to sexually abuse a child can never again be put in a position of trust with children or other vulnerable people," he said.
Vasa in his remarks in October called on Catholics throughout the diocese to exercise forgiveness toward those who have offended in the past.
"I can work to assure that the errors of the past do not recur, but only you can forgive," the bishop said. "I can promise to do the best I can, but only you can forgive and decide to trust again."