The nation's Roman Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly yesterday for revisions to their sexual abuse policy that they said would protect the rights of accused priests while ensuring that no Catholic clergyman who has abused a minor will remain in active ministry.
The new policy requires dioceses to conduct confidential investigations of priests accused of sexual misconduct and, if some evidence of wrongdoing is found, to remove the priests temporarily from ministry. If a priest contests the allegations, a church tribunal would rule on the case. But even if the priest is acquitted, a bishop can still keep him from ministry if he believes the priest is a threat to children.
It is a revision to the so-called zero tolerance policy the bishops adopted at their last meeting, in Dallas in June, which called for bishops to permanently remove accused priests from ministry. The Vatican said that plan violated the due process rights of priests because only church tribunals can impose permanent penalties.
The bishops maintained that by spelling out the procedures U.S. dioceses must take to remove an accused priest, the new policy is actually tighter than their initial plan. But some lay organizations called the revisions a retreat and expressed concerns that the laity would not have enough oversight of a process they said was too secret.
"The actions taken today represent a recommitment to what the bishops pledged in Dallas -- that no priest who has ever abused a child can remain in ministry," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., one of four U.S. prelates who negotiated the changes with the Vatican.
The bishops also voted to address one of the most common criticisms of the Dallas policy among lay Catholics -- that it contained no mechanisms for accountability of the bishops themselves. In a "Statement of Episcopal Commitment," the bishops promised to apply the sexual abuse rules to themselves and to offer each other not just "fraternal support" but also "fraternal correction."
Since only the pope has power to discipline a bishop, the statement of commitment amounted to a promise to be "much more outspoken" in criticizing each other, particularly in private communications and regional meetings, said Bishop Robert H. Brom of San Diego, chairman of the committee that drafted it.
Victims' groups, which have had far less access to the bishops at this week's meeting than they did in Dallas, remained skeptical both of the abuse policy and of the bishops' pledge of greater accountability.
"The changes they have made will increase their own discretion, their dependency on Rome and the secretiveness of the process," said Peter J. Isely of Milwaukee, a board member of the 4,300-member Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests. "It's still all about power, hierarchy and secrecy, the things that have practically defined the Roman Catholic Church since the 16th century."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic magazine America, said that although "it was not clear at first," he believes the bishops "have kept the central promise they made in Dallas." In fact, he said, the provision that allows a bishop to keep a priest out of ministry regardless of a tribunal's outcome is stronger than the initial plan. "This would not pass muster with the American Civil Liberties Union," he said.
In a vigorous debate before the vote on the sexual abuse policy, the bishops struggled -- as they had in Dallas -- with the possible contradictions between "zero tolerance" and Catholicism's emphasis on repentance and forgiveness.
Bishop Gerald A. Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., asked whether the revised policy would provide even a "sliver of hope" for the return to ministry of priests who admit they committed child sexual abuse in the distant past, but who have since repented, served honorably and shown they are no longer a danger to children. He was told it did not.
"We lost that in Dallas. The overwhelming vote of our brothers, the overwhelming desire of our Catholic people, made it impossible for us to continue that," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. "I have great sympathy for what Bishop Gettelfinger said. . . . But I think we must move forward. We must put an end to this. We cannot have Dallas II and Dallas III and Dallas IV. We need to accept these norms and move on."
In Dallas, the bishops had adopted two documents, a "charter" on protecting children and the "norms" to put it into effect in canon law, the church's internal legal code. They began carrying out the charter immediately, removing hundreds of priests across the country from ministry, while submitting the norms to the Vatican for approval.
Last month, the Vatican responded to the bishops, saying the norms contained "vague" language and were "difficult to reconcile" with portions of the church's "universal" or worldwide laws. A delegation of four U.S. bishops, headed by Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, then hammered out the changes in two days of talks with four senior Vatican officials in Rome.
The bishops voted 246 to 7 to approve the changes to the norms and 249 to 2 to reflect the new language in the charter. The norms will now be resubmitted to the Vatican for approval, which is expected.According to the rules, a diocese that receives a complaint of sexual abuse must conduct a preliminary investigation and promptly notify civil authorities whenever the allegation involves a current minor.
If the investigation finds "sufficient evidence" that abuse has occurred, the bishop must also notify the Vatican and temporarily remove the accused priest from ministry. In cases in which the facts are in dispute and the priest contests the allegation, the Vatican will instruct the bishop on whether to hold a church trial in the United States or in Rome.
The new rules clarify that the statute of limitations in canon law -- which runs for 10 years from a victim's 18th birthday -- remains in force but may be waived by the Vatican to allow a trial to take place. George told the bishops this week that the lifting of the time limit is not automatic, but that Vatican officials indicated they would "readily" grant waivers upon request by U.S. bishops. He also noted that the rules say bishops "shall" request waivers, meaning they have no option but to do so.
"There is no backing away from the promise we made in Dallas," George said.