-- A joint commission of U.S. bishops and senior Vatican officials has decided to reimpose a statute of limitations on the Roman Catholic Church's internal disciplining of American priests accused of sexually abusing children, Cardinal Francis George said today.
The decision appears to be a retreat by the American bishops from a key part of the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops four months ago in Dallas in response to the nationwide scandal over priests' sexual abuse. That policy called for the permanent removal from the ministry of a Catholic clergyman who sexually abused a minor, no matter how long ago.
In addition, the panel tightened the definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas policy and decided that accused priests cannot be permanently removed from ministerial duties unless they are convicted by a church tribunal, George said.
The revisions to the Dallas policy will be presented to the full body of U.S. bishops at a Nov. 11-14 meeting in Washington, in which the church leaders may debate and vote on them. If accepted, the revised policy would be resubmitted to the Vatican for final approval and would then become binding in every diocese in the United States.
The joint commission was appointed last week to revise the Dallas policy after the Vatican ruled that it contained "vague" language and conflicted with the church's "universal" laws. Among those worldwide laws is a requirement that allegations of sexual abuse by priests must be brought within 10 years of the victim's 18th birthday.
George headed a delegation of four U.S. bishops that huddled for two days this week with four senior prelates at the Vatican. He provided the first details of the commission's work in an impromptu news conference on his arrival today at O'Hare International Airport.
Although the commission decided that the Catholic Church in the United States must reinstitute the same 10-year statute of limitations contained in church law throughout the world, George said the Vatican agreed to consider waiving it under certain circumstances, which he did not specify.
Allegations will be "considered on a case-by-case basis. They're willing [in Rome] to lift the statute. They'll look at it and lift the statute if necessary," George said. "This guarantees justice for everyone."
In rejecting the Dallas policy two weeks ago, Vatican officials objected in particular to its loose definition of sexual abuse, which the policy said did not necessarily have to involve force or physical contact. George said the joint commission tightened the definition, basing its understanding on the sixth of the biblical Ten Commandments, the prohibition against adultery.
George did not read the new definition. But the church's traditional understanding of adultery, on which he said the definition is based, includes a range of sexual acts.
"It doesn't have to be an act of intercourse," he said. "[But] if someone says you're lusting after me in your heart, you can't bring that to the court."
Catholic dioceses across the United States have internal courts that consider marriage issues, particularly requests for annulments. Church law also provides for internal tribunals to hear allegations of various crimes, such as embezzlement of church funds, but these are relatively rare. George said the joint commission decided that "we'll probably set up separate trials" for sexual abuse cases.
Responding to revelations that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and some bishops quietly transferred pedophile priests from diocese to diocese after sending them for psychological counseling, the U.S. bishops voted in Dallas for the permanent removal from ministry of all known sex abusers.
But George said Vatican officials reminded the U.S. bishops that under church law, "if you want permanent penalties, you have to have a trial."
George portrayed the proposed changes as minor.
"The goal of the Dallas charter remains intact. The means remain intact. The procedures, however, are much more sophisticated to enable us to make judgments where everyone's rights are protected," he said.
George said he and the other Americans on the panel -- Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco; Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill.; and Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. -- had a relatively easy time working with their Roman counterparts, led by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, head of the Vatican's department for the clergy.
"There was one moment when I thought, 'This isn't going to work.' Voices were raised," he said. "But then it went on. I think this is a good piece of work. It will make everything more clear."
The immediate reaction from canon lawyers and victims' advocates, however, was that much remains uncertain.
Patricia Marie Dugan, a Philadelphia attorney who holds degrees in civil and canon law, said she believes the Dallas policy requires corrections to protect the due process rights of priests. But if church tribunals hear evidence in cases that may also be prosecuted in civil courts, that "could actually be considered an obstruction of justice" by civil prosecutors, she said.
Dugan noted that church tribunals operate under strict rules of secrecy. "You're dancing on this thin line we've always had about whether civil courts can have access to our procedures and our archives. I don't know whether the records can be turned over," she said.
David Clohessy, head of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, a 4,100-member support group for victims, said the outcome of the meeting in Rome "is essentially what we feared."
"Catholics need to know that abusers will be taken out of ministry and stay out of ministry, regardless of when their first offense occurred," he said, adding that "we're back to an ambiguous, murky policy that priests, not laypeople will have the key role in interpreting."
Cooperman reported from Washington.