Priests who work in a diocese generally get forced out under the zero-tolerance policy created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops three years ago in response to public outrage and fear of expensive civil suits.
Dominicans, Jesuits and other religious orders, representing 16,000 of the nation's 45,000 priests, chose another path: giving abusive priests supervised treatment for as long as they stay within their communities.
Both approaches could claim support from Pope John Paul II. He called abuse criminal and said there was no place in the priesthood for abusers of minors, yet also suggested that some priests could "turn away from sin and back to God" if given a second chance.
The religious orders say the logical place for such priests is behind church walls. But victims tend to be less forgiving, and can sometimes stoke anger and fear in the surrounding community. That's what happened in Oakland, where St. Albert's a small Dominican priory in a middle-class neighborhood houses six aging priests accused of sex abuse ranging from molestation to "inappropriate touching." All are over 65, and the statute of limitations has passed on their offenses. No criminal charges were filed against the men, but police were notified in several cases, the priory said Thursday.
Some neighbors now call the stately buildings down the block a "pedophile colony." They worry about their children and the two schools nearby, and wonder why the Dominicans kept it secret until a former seminarian told the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
For the past several years, sex-abusing Dominicans from 10 Western states have been quietly sent to St. Albert's, where they get supervised treatment without being connected to any public ministry.
The bishops' zero-tolerance policy doesn't provide for such supervision. Once they decide abuse happened or could have happened, diocesan priests are ousted, and while "treatment will be offered to the alleged offender, it's not something that happens in each and every case," said Kathleen McChesney, who directed the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection until recently.
Living communally thinking of themselves as families the orders felt they couldn't simply adopt the bishops' policy. They would have to solve their problems in-house, explained the Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which oversees America's religious order priests.
"When we decided to keep our men ... that meant we had to deal with one another's failings," Keating said. "Even when men had done things like this."
Taking responsibility for offenders rather than ostracizing them is not only the Christian approach, it's better for both offenders and society, "but we have to make sure we're supervising them properly with good advice," Keating said.
That's why they turned to Austin, Tex.-based Praesidium Religious Services Inc., which works with nearly all the U.S. orders to accredit their policies for dealing with abusers and victims
"They realized they needed protocol on how to supervise men because they weren't going to kick them out of the priesthood and they were looking for someone with expertise in this area," explained Praesidium president Monica Applewhite. "Most families wouldn't be as conscientious about supervising as I've seen the religious be."
The dioceses have no such plans to seek accreditation, McChesney said.
Dan McNevin, a member of SNAP and a vocal critic at public meetings about St. Albert's, wants the priory to release names, photographs and details about the abuse perpetrated by the six priests.
Lauren Larson also is nervous she runs a daycare center just down the street with 12 children.
"What's to stop an offender from volunteering with kids?" she said. "I don't feel like this is a good way of dealing with them."
The Rev. Stephen Rossetti says supervision is key. He directs the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which has treated nearly 400 sex offending priests since 1985. The program has a 4.3 percent recidivism rate, he says, about equal to one of the nation's top civilian treatment facilities.
"I understand why SNAP is upset, but where are they going to live? We're not going to blast them to the moon," Rossetti said. "The goal is to protect children. Let's give them treatment and put them in a supervised environment."
It's unclear how many priests ousted due to sex abuse allegations in recent years have been diocesan and how many belonged to religious orders. Church officials also can't say how many priests overall have received substantive treatment for sex offenses. Both branches insist they'll report any new allegations involving a minor to police.
Among the Jesuits, the nation's largest religious order of men with about 3,000 priests and brothers, about 50 priests are under supervision for sex-related misconduct, according to the Rev. David Haschka with the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C.
The Dominicans have about 850 U.S. priests and brothers, and a dozen under similar supervision.
After weeks of pressure from neighbors and activists, the Dominicans provided names and details about the offender priests. They also invited a "qualified neighbor" to sit on their oversight committee, and upgraded their network to catch inappropriate use of computers.
"They should not and cannot be in public ministry," explained The Rev. Edward Krasevac, who handles sex abuse-related issues for the Western Dominican Province. "We have good therapeutic resources, leadership and support."
All six are allowed to come and go from the priory as long as they follow Praesidium's "safety plans," which dictate the work they're allowed to do, when they see a therapist and whether they can travel.
But neighbors worry their plans aren't being enforced. It was a neighbor who told the Dominicans that their most serious offender had disobeyed an order forbidding him to travel to Thailand to visit a Buddhist monk friend. Since that episode, the priest has been on "lockdown," and doesn't leave the priory unless he's accompanied, Krasevac said.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest, lawyer and advocate for victims for more than 20 years, still believes St. Albert's should have "taken the risk" and told neighbors what has been going on inside.
"We, as celibate priests, cannot fully understand the anguish families experience when one of their children are abused," Doyle said. "We aren't parents. We can't understand that fear."
But Krasevac is confident they chose the right path.
"We didn't tell the neighbors for the right reasons," he said. "In a family, if you have someone with bad stuff in their background and they're rehabilitated, do you announce that to your neighbors?"
ON THE WEB:St. Albert's Priory: www.sap.opwest.org/