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Catholic Church Tries Something New: Supervised Living For Accused Priests

By Andy Newman

As the Roman Catholic Church struggles to repair itself and its image in the wake of the sex abuse scandals, one of the more confounding questions church leaders face is what to do with priests accused of abuse.

Some priests whose crimes fell within statutes of limitation are in jail. Some have been defrocked.

But others — because they are elderly, because of the nature of their offenses, or because they have had some success fighting the charges — cannot be defrocked under canon law. These priests occupy a sort of shadow world, stripped of most duties but still financially supported by the church and fairly free to move about, both angering the critics of the church and exposing the diocese to further liability.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, head of the New York Archdiocese, is trying something new. Since June, he has offered seven priests that the archdiocese believes have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children a choice.

They can spend the rest of their lives in closely supervised housing, where, in addition to receiving regular therapy, they must fill out a daily log of their comings and goings. Or they can leave the priesthood and the lifetime security net that comes with it.

Priests who agree to enter the program move temporarily to a handsome, ivy-covered retreat house on Long Island Sound in a mansion-filled corner of Larchmont, N.Y., in Westchester County, a place where priests with troubles have long been sent.

The building, Trinity Retreat House, flanked by the sound on one side and an inlet on the other, is, unlike its neighbors, nearly invisible from the road, hidden behind leafy trees and an ivy-covered wall. In a few months, the priests are transferred to permanent housing elsewhere, said Joseph Zwilling, Egan’s spokesman.

So far, five of the seven priests who received the letters have resigned rather than submit to monitoring. One priest has moved into the retreat house, and the other is on his way, Zwilling said.

It is difficult to determine how many other dioceses have a supervised-living program like the new one in New York. In the Chicago Archdiocese, nine priests accused of sex abuse live in a retreat house on the grounds of a seminary and are carefully monitored, officials there said, adding that they also planned to installing surveillance cameras and keep the priests locked in the building during some hours.

A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, WIlliam A. Ryan, said, “There are several other dioceses that have similar programs, but unfortunately, none of them are willing to talk about it.”

In the New York Archdiocese, the priests who received the letter fall into one of several categories, Zwilling said.

Some have been convicted in a canonical trial but determined to be too elderly or infirm to endure being defrocked and are instead sentenced to a life of prayer and penance.