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'Credible evidence' needed to access clergy files

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After criticism surfaced for not publicizing changes the archdiocese made to its child protection policies, promulgated on May 30, Archbishop Seán O’Malley has vowed to make any further modifications public.

Changes to the Policies and Procedures for the Protection of Children curbing victims’ access to clergy personnel records caused a stir because they were made without consulting members of the Commission for the Protection of Children. The commission, appointed by Cardinal Bernard Law, made recommendations that were incorporated into the original policy.

According to archdiocesan spokesman Father Christopher Coyne, the modifications, which were made before Archbishop Seán O’Malley was named head of the archdiocese, do not deny alleged victims access to files, but put a process in place for releasing the records.

He said that the policies originally allowed anyone who made a complaint against a priest to have full access to all files and materials concerning the investigation into the claim. The problem with that, Father Coyne said, was that it allowed a victim access to a priest’s files before the allegation had been deemed credible.

"That obviously was a mistake, because no one should be given access to anyone else's private files, or materials involving them, simply because they made a complaint," said Father Coyne. "There has to be more than just a complaint. There has to be an investigation, and once the investigation is made and a determination is made that there appears to be substance to allegation, as the investigation proceeds the delegate and the delegate's office will supply all complaints with information as need be."

He stated that the changes provide a process for handing over files that protects the due process of accused priests.

Father Coyne said that the archdiocese regrets not having involved the commission in the modifications. “That was a mistake,” he said. “They should have been consulted and the changes should have been thoroughly discussed.”

Responding to claims by some alleged victims’ attorneys that the changes violate the rights of victims, Father Coyne disagreed.

"They do not diminish the rights of the victims," he stated. "The victims still are entitled to full due process under the policies and procedures. They just do not have automatic access to the files of the priests simply by making a complaint."

The Commission for the Protection of Children was established in January 2002 to update the archdiocese’s 1993 policy on sexual misconduct. The commission issued its recommendations on Oct. 7, 2002.

The archdiocese took the recommendations and consulted with the presbyteral council, the archdiocesan pastoral council, pastors, theologians, canonists and lay people. The final document, which was written by several pastors, theologians and canonists, was promulgated on May 30, 2003.

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