Church Group Recommends Keeping Abusive Clergy Ban
Bishops Meeting in Annual Conference [Washington DC]
November 17, 2004

WASHINGTON -- A committee overseeing a review of the child protection plan adopted by Roman Catholic bishops has recommended preserving a ban on church work for clerics who molest young people, according to a document the panel has sent to all U.S. bishops.

Victims and lay advocates have been worried that the bishops would gut that provision, which was adopted under intense public pressure during the bishops' June 2002 meeting in Dallas at the height of the abuse crisis.

However, Archbishop Harry Flynn, chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sex Abuse, said Tuesday that the document his panel recently sent to the bishops makes no such changes.

"I think we maintain our promise in Dallas, and it is essential for our own integrity," Flynn said in an interview at this week's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops met in private for most of Tuesday and were expected to reconvene in public Wednesday.

The committee's proposal for tweaks in the abuse policy still may undergo significant revisions, as bishops nationwide seek comment in their dioceses, then debate any final changes at their June 2005 meeting.

Still, the provision known as "zero-tolerance" has at least cleared its first hurdle, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the bishops' conference.

"The fact that the committee is not proposing significant changes is important. That means somebody is going to have to initiate any changes from the floor," he said.

He predicted some bishops will seek bigger changes.

"Normally this body is very deferential to the work of it's committees, but when it's on something controversial that the bishops are divided on, then they're going to talk about it and debate it," Reese said.

The committee's draft, called "Workbook For the Review of The Charter For the Protection of Children and Young People," keeps intact the definition of sex abuse that some critics said was too broad, since it includes sex acts that involve no physical contact.

The draft also maintains the role of the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel the bishops created in Dallas to monitor their reforms, although it requires that appointees be endorsed by their local bishop.

The committee also recommended annual audits of dioceses to check their compliance with the discipline plan. Additionally, the panel suggested that the revised policy remain in place for five years, when it would undergo another review.

Two years ago, the Vatican agreed to make sections of the policy church law for the United States. Flynn has asked that the committee of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials who hammered out that agreement meet in December 2005 to review their work.

Suzanne Morse, a spokeswoman for Voice of the Faithful, the lay reform group created in response to the crisis, said she was encouraged that the working draft kept intact the strongest provisions of the policy.

However, she said the proposal requiring that local bishops endorse review board appointees would undercut the panel's independence.

"I think that autonomy is absolutely essential for them to act as a watchdog," she said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was less concerned about the language in the charter than about whether the bishops were implementing the policy.

"Is it rigorously followed?" he said.

Separately, the bishops have also commissioned a study on the causes of abuse by clergy. Flynn said the contract for that research has been awarded to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is set to be completed in October 2005.


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