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Who Watches the Church?
By Dan Gunderson
November 10, 1999
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A former North Dakota governor is starting an organization to protect people whose rights are violated by organized religion. George Sinner says he's concerned some religious bodies are willing to sacrifice individual rights to protect their own power and interests.

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American Center for Law and Justice.
Baylor University Institute of Church-State Studies
People for the American Way
GEORGE SINNER IS A LIFELONG Catholic. He attended the seminary at St. John's University in Collegeville, and considered entering the priesthood. In the end, he went into politics and served two terms as governor of North Dakota. Sinner says in the past few years, he's become increasingly concerned about what he sees as abuses of the separation of church and state.
Sinner: I suddenly realized there was a need for a place to say, "This person or this group or this cleric is being abused by somebody's power."
Sinner says he was angered by the recent case of a North Dakota priest who embezzled thousands of dollars from his parish. The Catholic Church successfully argued he should not be prosecuted for the crime because it was an internal church matter. Sinner says that's putting money before morality.
Sinner: What is most clearly needed is a due-process procedure where people can get a hearing; where monetary considerations, such as lawsuits, don't take over, instead of churches being able to do what they really preach and believe.
Sinner says he does not want to break down the separation of church and state, but wants churches of all denominations to be accountable to the people they serve.

It appears Sinner is not alone in his concern. The group already has more than 100 members and has yet to hold its first meeting. Sinner says some church officials support his idea, others have been sharply critical.
Sinner: That's ok. We're trying to not return vitriolic comments with other vitriolic comments. We're trying to let them pass and go on with our work in a professional way.
The Fargo Catholic Diocese declined a request for an interview for this story, but issued a statement saying it has a due process procedure in place, and that it feels George Sinner is sincere in his effort.

There's nothing new about the dispute over separation of church and state. Over the years, it's been the focus of countless court cases around the nation.

Derrick Davis is director of the Institute for Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He says the issue is complex and somewhat murky at times, but courts are likely to err on the side of the religious body.
Davis: The courts have generally said that where there is an existing structure set up to deal with internal problems of aberrant behavior, courts have been much more inclined to let churches handle those affairs internally.
Davis says the writers of the Constitution wanted to protect religion from a heavy-handed government, not to protect people who break the law.

North Dakota State University religion professor John Helgeland says the ever increasing threat of lawsuits in recent years makes it tempting for churches to retreat behind the wall of separation and silence.
Helgeland: When the church exercises that kind of power and is tempted to exercise that kind of power, it has a corrupting influence within the church, at least a potential corrupting influence within the church.
Helgeland says history shows watchdog groups can have great influence on religion. He says he wonders if the time is right for George Sinner's group to catch the attention of churchgoers across the country. But he also cautions, history also shows watchdog groups can end up being more damaging than the wrong they set out to correct.

George Sinner shares that concern. He says he wants a reasoned, civil approach, working with churches rather than against them. He says the group will not take positions on controversial issues, but simply seek justice for individuals.