Vatican Reports Question 1-Strike Rule
Findings Critical of U.S. Bishops' Policy, Could Shape Official Guidelines

By Susan Hogan
The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
February 24, 2004

Not all priests who molest children should be removed from ministry, according to reports issued by the Vatican on Monday. The reports were widely perceived as a slap to U.S. Catholic bishops, who adopted a policy almost two years ago in Dallas calling for removal of clergy guilty of even a single act of sexual abuse.

While the new reports are not official rules, the Vatican said they would help shape its policy. Some experts said the reports signal that the American bishops' one-strike policy may face renewed opposition from the hierarchy when it comes under review next summer.

The reports are the findings of researchers invited to examine clergy sexual abuse at a symposium sponsored by the Vatican last year. Although the researchers were non-Catholic, their views reflected opinions voiced by Rome when the bishops were adopting their historic charter on the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

"It's not just the Vatican, but European experts disagree with American views of sexuality," said Philip Jenkins, a religious studies professor at Pennsylvania State University. "The Vatican signed off on the bishops' charter, but they weren't terribly happy about it.

The Vatican did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

The reports were released just three days after the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said the one-strike policy would stand. On Friday, results of the first comprehensive study of the American abuse crisis will be released in Washington.

The bishops mandated the study as part of their pledge to deal with abuse with "openness and transparency." An early draft indicates nearly 4,500 clergy faced accusations from 1950 to 2002.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said some American bishops are sympathetic to the views in the Vatican reports. But most believe zero-tolerance is the best way to protect children from predators and the church from lawsuits. "Bishops fear that if the policy is relaxed and one of these guys commits a crime again, they'll have to hock the cathedral," he said.

The Vatican reports argue that society benefits when some predatory priests are kept in the priesthood but away from children. If kept in the priesthood, the thinking goes, the church can keep a watch on these clergy.

"The problem with that is, as we've seen over time, the offending priests are never kept from children," said Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas attorney who has represented victims of abuse by clergy.

In fact, U.S. bishops have come under criticism by Catholics who say they aren't following their pledge to remove priests guilty of a single offense. Victims were surprised to learn, for example, that Robert Sanchez, the former archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., had been leading worship in Alaska.

Archbishop Sanchez, notorious for shielding predatory priests in New Mexico, resigned in 1993 after being accused of molesting underage teen girls. He has been leading worship in the Anchorage area until recently with approval of the Vatican's top U.S. representative in the United States, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante, who is on the U.S. bishops' sexual abuse committee, predicts the bishops will stand firm with their one-strike policy. He said Catholics shouldn't read too much into the reports since church officials didn't write them.

"I don't see us rolling this back," he said. "We can't run the risk of putting young people in danger."

Clergy abuse victims said the reports threaten to undercut the trust U.S. bishops have worked to re-establish in the wake of what some consider the biggest crisis ever to hit the American church. Over the last two years, more than 400 clergy have left ministry because of abuse allegations.

"This will provide cover and excuses for every backsliding bishop and manipulative perpetrator," said David Cerulli of New York, a board member of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "And it will deepen the disillusionment of many Catholics and already very pessimistic and wounded victims."


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