-- U.S. Roman Catholic bishops today affirmed their policy of zero tolerance for sex offenders, voting by a substantial majority to extend the one-strike approach for five years despite complaints from some priests and bishops that the policy is too inflexible.
The measure bans sex offenders from public church work for life, a step first taken by Catholic authorities in 2002 after hundreds of priests stood accused of sexual misdeeds. Most victims were children.
Minneapolis and St. Paul Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, who guided the policy through the American church hierarchy, told reporters after the vote that the efforts should produce a measure of healing. He added: "The light is at the end of the tunnel, but with sin and brokenness, there is never an end."
Flynn rejected complaints from victims organizations that the policy was "fainthearted." He also took issue with criticism from church insiders that the punishment of some priests for offenses that occurred just once and long ago was unfair.
"There is no place in the priesthood," Flynn said, "for anyone . . . who has molested a child."
The vote was 228 to 4. Only one prelate spoke against the policy before the secret balloting, although a committee had reported that "many, perhaps a majority" of bishops hope the ban will be relaxed. Some feel the one-strike approach conflicts with Catholic teachings on redemption.
Bishops consider a ban for the first offense, no matter the severity, essential to counter an image of church insensitivity and stonewalling. In the past 55 years, more than 5,000 priests have been accused of sexual abuse and the church has paid roughly $1 billion in expenses and settlements. The peak was in 2002, when more than 3,300 allegations were made.
Many priests are "worried and concerned" about their future, afraid that an accusation is tantamount to a conviction, Edward T. Hughes, retired bishop of Metuchen, N.J., told colleagues during a public session of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"I'm not sure our priests really trust us," Hughes said. "Such lack of trust can be destructive of all our efforts."
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the Catholic hierarchy deserves credit for removing more than 800 priests from the pulpit. But he asserted that the zero-tolerance policy in the Dallas Charter of 2002 is "very sporadically enforced" and added: "There's a tremendous amount of hair-splitting."
The bishops, who said they would offer financial support for an ambitious psychological study of sexual abuse in the priesthood, also made it clear that the National Review Board, a group of laypeople appointed to monitor the abuse scandal, is accountable to the bishops. It is not a separate authority.
New members must be approved by their local bishop, according to the new rules, which also say that clergy members could one day join the board. Former board members have said recently that independence is necessary for credibility.
The bishops defeated an attempt to replace a popular part of American liturgy -- "Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again." -- with a translation from Latin.
Speaking for the bishops' liturgical committee, Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., said the three lines do not connect to the congregation and come from 20th-century song lyrics with no Latin origin, unlike other acclamations.
Opponents of the changes said the words are popular and the sentiments heartfelt. Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, pointed out that other lines are not well translated and told his brethren that American Catholics should be allowed to settle into familiar prayers during a time of uncertainty in the church.
Not to do so, Egan said, could leave the impression that "everything is up for grabs."