Bishops Adopt Compromise on Sexual Abuse Policy
First-time abusers would lose their job, but not be kicked out of priesthood

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post, carried in Detroit News
June 15, 2002 0206/15/religion-515574.htm

DALLAS -- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly Friday to adopt a new national policy on the sexual abuse of minors by priests that would remove all offenders from any job connected with the church but would not necessarily force them out of the priesthood.

After a grueling day of debate, the bishops voted 239 to 13 to approve the policy, a step that many of them have said they hope will begin to repair the damage and the strain in their relations with Catholic laypeople that has been caused by the unfolding sex abuse scandal within the priesthood.

Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Richmand, Va., holds up a ballot during the voting on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting in Dallas Friday. Eric Gay / Associated Press.

"From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church," Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the conference, declared after the vote. He added that the bishops "apologize to anyone harmed by one of our priests and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, said the bishops backed away from the mandatory removal of abusive priests because laicization -- the formal process of removing a priest -- is cumbersome and time-consuming and such a provision might have been opposed by the Vatican. He said there was also an argument that it could be more dangerous for children if an abusive priest was forced out of the priesthood and was then no longer monitored by church authorities.

Under the new policy, such a priest will be taken out of public ministry and sent "to lead a life of prayer and penance."

"We may in fact be protecting the community by keeping him under church supervision," Reese said.
That argument did not satisfy members of victims groups. "It isn't zero tolerance," said Peter Isely, a member of the Survivors Newtrork of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "It is simply not what Catholics wanted."
David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, said the bishops "look at these men as priests first and sexual predators last. They've got it backwards."

Mark Serrano, right, and David Clohessy, both members of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, comfort each other after speaking to the media in Dallas Friday. SNAP is speaking against the changes the Bishops are making in their clerical sex abuse policy. L.M. Otero / Associated Press.

But the bishops insisted that by removing all priests guilty of even a single instance of sexually abusing a minor from parish work or other public ministries, they accomplished the most important goal of protecting children. Some, such as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, also said that virtually all priests who sexually abuse children are also likely to be ousted from the priesthood by laicization.

"I understand that there are severe and raw emotions," said the Rev. Joseph Galante, the coadjutor bishop of Dallas. "But I think we have done what our people want us to do, which is to remove from public ministry and access to priestly identity those who have offended."

The vote Friday afternoon, cast on paper ballots that the bishops signed, climaxed an intense two days for the clergymen. They are under immense pressure to respond to a sex abuse scandal that Gregory has called perhaps the gravest crisis ever faced by the church in the United States.

In the end, the bishops adopted a compromise that was an attempt to satisfy widespread demands for zero tolerance of even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor, but that stopped short of mandating that priests who abuse minors be removed from the priesthood as well as their ministries.

"Diocesan policy will provide that for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry," the new policy declared.
This was a key issue during the conference and one that clearly troubled many of the bishops. Under it, any priest known to have sexually abused a minor in the past and who is still active in a diocese would be forced to leave his ministry.

That provision confronted the bishops with the painful prospect of removing priests they know from their ministries and some of the bishops said they opposed such an approach.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said the bishops conference was proposing "a simplistic solution to a complex problem" and a "one-size-fits-all approach."

"I think this is seriously flawed," said former Bishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage. "I think we are very defective and have left ourselves open to the charge that we sound like legislators, getting a quick fix."
Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn also faulted the bishops for not doing more to acknowledge their own responsibility for the sex abuse scandal. "The reality is that we were blind," he said. "We were so cowered by the fear of scandal that we did not see the problem.

But by Friday's debate there was a clear consensus in the bishops conference for what they characterized as a zero tolerance policy. "One act of abuse is one too many," said Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore. "Most often it's not just one, it's more than one."

"I hate to say I support zero tolerance," added Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. "But we must place the good of the church first." The policy also declared that cases of sexual abuse of a minor may result in "a request for laicization even without the consent of the cleric." Earlier versions of the policy, which was extensively amended during closed meetings Thursday, said that any future act of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest would result in his automatic removal from the priesthood.

The new policy also established a review board that will monitor implementation of the policy and dioceses across the country. Gregory announced that the board will be headed by Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma (R) and that Robert Bennett, a Washington lawyer who represented former president Clinton in the sexual harassment suit filed against him by Paula Jones, had also agreed to serve on it.

The bishops also voted to submit the policy to the Vatican and will ask church officials in Rome to make it mandatory law for the U.S. church. But the bishops said they did not expect there to be any resistance to applying the policy immediately.

Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City said that the review board will be urged to publish a list of any dioceses that are not adhering to the policy. "I don't think any of us want to be on the list."

The process of debating and amending the policy at Friday's meeting unfolded slowly as the bishops often haggled over the addition or deletion of a single word. In general, the bishops turned back attempts to weaken the policy. For example, they rejected an amendment to have it apply only to "credible" accusations of sexual abuse.

As the meeting dragged on, Gregory provoked the first applause when he suggested that he would begin limiting debate.

"When push comes to shove we tend to fall back into a scholastic mode," Galante said of the tone of the meeting. "We all studied theology; we all studied philosophy. Good philosophers make distinctions. But we're not doing theology here. We are doing a position document to protect children."

Highlights of Policy [Sidebar]

Highlights of national policy on disciplining priests approved Friday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
-- Bars priests who commit sexual abuse from parish work and all public ministry.
-- Allows bishops, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people, to decide whether to oust abusive clergy from the priesthood.
-- Bishops must report all allegations of abuse of minors to civil authorities.
-- Bishops should no longer make confidentiality agreements in settlements of civil lawsuits over sex abuse unless the victim insists.
-- Requires background checks for all diocesan and parish workers who have contact with children.
-- Requires bishops to provide an "accurate and complete" description of a priest's personnel record if the cleric seeks to transfer to another diocese.
-- Creates a commission to research how the U.S. church has responded to sex abuse by priests.
-- Creates a national Office of Child and Youth Protection in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to implement "safe environment" programs and take other actions to protect children from abuse.
-- Creates a review board, including parents, to work with the Child Protection Office to annually examine how the bishops are responding to abuse.
-- Has dioceses establish an outreach program to support victims of priestly sexual abuse.

-- Associated Press


New Catholic policy

The new national policy on the sexual abuse of minors by priests would remove all offenders from any job connected with the church but would not immediately force them out of the priesthood. Are you satisfied with the new policy?

Check Survey Results


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.