Analysis: U.S. Conference of Bishops Overwhelming Votes to Accept New Charter with Regards to Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests

By Liane Hansen, John Ydstie, and Duncan Moon
National Public Radio
All Things Considered
June 14, 2002

LIANE HANSEN, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Liane Hansen.

JOHN YDSTIE, host: And I'm John Ydstie.

Today in Dallas, hundreds of Roman Catholic bishops voted on an historic policy for priests who commit sexual abuse in the United States. After the vote, the head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, made this statement.

Bishop WILTON GREGORY (US Conference of Catholic Bishops): Today, we have seen the passage of an important document in the history of our Conference of Bishops. From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States. We bishops apologize to anyone harmed by one of our priests, and for our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror of sexual abuse. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People stands as one of the greatest efforts anywhere in addressing sexual abuse of minors. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ensures that young people are protected, that victims are truly listened to and assisted, that all priests are trustworthy and that all bishops will act responsibly. Thank you.

YDSTIE: Bishop Wilton Gregory, describing the new national policy for American priests who commit sexual abuse. The policy was approved at the US Conference of Bishops earlier today in Dallas.

HANSEN: NPR's Duncan Moon is at the conference, and he joins us.

Duncan, what was the vote?

DUNCAN MOON reporting:

Well, in the end after all the debate and after all the disagreement, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor: 239-to-13; well beyond the two-thirds needed. After the result was announced, we've heard just now--Bishop Wilton Gregory gave his apology. Everybody seemed to be very contrite. We heard from Bishop Weigand of Sacramento just before the vote, and he was saying that bishops really need to take this scandal as a sign that they have to take a humbler approach to ministry. They have to give more power to, as he said, `good lay leadership.'

HANSEN: The main issue has been called the zero tolerance of priests who abuse children. Do you think they've achieved zero tolerance?

MOON: Well, it depends on the definition. It depends on who you talk to. I think the bishops think they have. They have a uniform policy. But victims groups say they don't. The victims were looking for something in very black-and-white terms. Anything less than an automatic defrocking--officially removing priests from the priesthood--was not up to their standard. They said it, you know, left open loopholes, and they felt betrayed in the process.

But the bishops said zero tolerance doesn't necessarily mean that this has to be an official defrocking, that you have to go through this technical laitization, as they call it, which, you know, is a long, judicial process in the church. It's, like, sort of a trial. And there are lawyers and it has to be carried out under Canon law. Each case has to be approved by the Vatican. And individual priests can resist if he wants to. He can fight laitization. He can take his case to Rome.

The bishops say, you know, that option is open to them. They can do that, and they're going to use it in most cases. But they believe they can still remove a priest from active ministry, really remove the danger, they say, through a more localized process.

I guess what they mean is that all offending priests will be banned from saying Mass in public. They're not going to be able to wear clerical clothes and the Roman collar. They're no longer going to be called 'Father,' or able to represent themselves in public as priests in any way. But they remain under the control of the bishop. The diocese is financially responsible for them. They'll be contained in a monastery or an old-age home of some sort. And the bishops say, you know, this is a uniform policy. It removes the priest, it removes the danger, and so it needs to be seen as zero tolerance.

HANSEN: Duncan, in the draft documents, the bishops were committed to informing the police whenever a new allegation arises? Are they still committed to that?

MOON: Yes, they are. And the vote on that amendment was a large majority, as well. The debate was sealed over a single word. The word was 'credible.' Those who wanted to put it in wanted the bishops in the diocese to have the ability to adjudge the credibility of allegations before they turned them over to public authorities. And those who didn't wanted the allegations to go directly to the authorities before any diocesan investigation took place. In the end, the amendment was shot down. The final document will mandate that all allegations go directly to the authorities. It was one of the hotter debates of the day, and four of the eight US cardinals took part.

HANSEN: How binding now is this document coming out of the conference?

MOON: Well, until the Vatican approves it, it's not mandatory--at least not technically. Each bishop still reports directly to Rome and not to the Conference of Bishops. So they're looking for some sort of quick approval from Rome.

But many are saying, you know, the pressure of this scandal has been so great, it's done so much damage, that the bishops won't dare not adopt the policies. And to sort of cement it, the conference is opening a new office which will review who's implementing the charter and who's not, and publish a report every year that says here's who's complying and who's not. And, again, given the damage and the pressure that this scandal's caused, it should be, really, a powerful incentive to tow the line.

HANSEN: NPR's Duncan Moon, at the bishops' conference in Dallas, Texas. Thank you, Duncan.

MOON: Thank you, Liane.


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