The Vatican today formally approved a revised version of the U.S. Roman Catholic leaders' policy to fight sexual abuse of minors by priests and promised full support for "the bishops' efforts to combat and to prevent such evil."
In a one-page letter, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who heads the Congregation for Bishops, expressed hope that the revised policy would help restore faith in the clergy, defend the innocent and punish the guilty.
Meeting in Dallas in June, U.S. bishops devised a policy against sexual abuse in response to the uproar in the U.S. church that followed the disclosure of repeated cases of priests guilty of such acts going unpunished. The policy was implemented, but in October the Vatican objected to certain provisions, saying they did not adequately protect the rights of the accused.
The former version allowed bishops to suspend priests as soon as allegations of sexual misconduct were made. Under the revised version, a preliminary inquiry must be held to determine the claim's plausibility. If the priest is found to be plausibly guilty, he is to be placed on a leave of absence and appear before a clerical tribunal that will determine whether he is guilty.
The revised rules announced today "are intended to give effective protection to minors and to establish a rigorous and precise procedure to punish in a just way those who are guilty of such abominable offenses because, as the Holy Father has said, 'there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,' " said the letter, addressed to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The rules also "protect inviolable human rights -- including the right to defend oneself -- and guarantee respect for the dignity of all those involved, beginning with the victims," the letter continues. "Moreover, they uphold the principle, fundamental in all just systems of law, that a person is considered innocent until either a regular process or his own spontaneous admission proves him guilty."
The approval of what in church terminology are called "Essential Norms" came three days after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law as head of the Archdiocese of Boston, which has been at the center of the scandal in the United States.
"The letter shows that the Holy See has directed its bishops, as shepherds, to protect the flock from the wolves," said Rev. Robert A. Gahl Jr., professor of philosophy at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. "It certainly clarifies the church's future on this issue."
He added: "It's a movement in the right direction to protect the good name of those falsely accused as if they are part of a witch hunt. And it proves that there's no room for any doubt in protecting young people."
The Rev. Michael Hilbert, professor of procedural law at Rome's Gregorian University, said today was "a day of great satisfaction. . . . With procedural norms and efficiency instilled, it's a day for all of us in this profession to be happy."
The formal approval, referred to in Latin as recognitio, was widely expected after the revisions were made by a joint U.S.-Vatican commission. In two years, the approved policy will be subject to review. Cardinal Re asked that, in the meantime, priests and deacons continue to meet with members of religious orders to discuss particular situations as they pertain to the policy, and to inform the Vatican of agreements reached.
Gregory, of the U.S. bishops' conference, praised the Vatican's approval of the new policy in a statement.
"Sexual abuse of minors by clergy is an evil that has had a profound effect on our entire church community," he said. "A number of bishops have added to the impact of this scandal by being, too often, negligent in our vigilance and insufficiently urgent in our response. Now all of us bind ourselves by the pledges of the charter and the requirements of the norms to see to it that this cannot happen again."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the conference, said dioceses already have tribunals in place for other alleged misconduct. These panels could handle sexual abuse cases, she said, but she was unsure if they were prepared for the new function. "Each diocese has to decide on that individually," Walsh said.
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher in Washington contributed to this report.