Compromise on Abusive Priests
Bishops' Policy Bars Contact with Parishioners, but Not from Priesthood
The Associated Press
June 15, 2002
DALLAS — After months of scandal that tore at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, American bishops adopted a policy Friday that will bar sexually abusive clergy from face-to-face contact with parishioners but keep them in the priesthood.
The national policy is intended to be binding on 178 mainstream dioceses, a major shift from the voluntary discipline guidelines the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has relied on for years. The policy needs Vatican approval to become binding.
On the second day of a meeting filled with wrenching accounts of abuse by victims, the prelates stood and applauded after they approved the policy on a 239-13 vote by secret ballot.
"From this day forward no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic church in the United States," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference president. He also apologized for "our tragically slow response in recognizing the horror" of sexual abuse.
Under the plan, abusers past and future will technically remain priests, but they will be prohibited from any work connected to the church — from celebrating Mass to teaching in parochial school to serving in a Catholic soup kitchen.
Abusers still can be defrocked — removed from the priesthood — but it would be up to the presiding bishop, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people. The plan will be reviewed in two years.
The extraordinarily swift change in church policy comes after months of unrelenting scandal in which at least 250 priests have resigned or been suspended because of misconduct claims. Victim after victim has come forward with tortured stories of abuse at the hands of priests, and accusations that church leaders merely shuffled molesters between parishes.
Even as the bishops cheered inside a Dallas hotel, a Nebraska jury was awarding $800,000 to a woman and her son, a former altar boy who was abused by a priest in the 1990s.
Before the summit, there was widespread speculation that the bishops would adopt a zero-tolerance policy under which abusive priests would be automatically defrocked. That idea was dropped during closed-door debate.
Bishops said it seemed unfair to remove elderly men from the priesthood toward the end of their lives for allegations that in some cases date back decades.
"The majority of men these men are in their 60s, 70s and 80s," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said.
Salt Lake City Bishop George Niederauer, a member of the draft policy committee, said he felt the plan would protect children. But victims were outraged and about a dozen spilled into the hotel lobby to express their anger.
"We have zero accountability for bishops," said Mark Serrano, a member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "Based on their vote today, a sexual predator can still carry the title of father and that's one of the tools of a sexual predator."
Sheila Daley, a member of the liberal Catholic group Call to Action, called the policy "weak" and "inadequate."
"As long as their perpetrator can use the term 'father' to describe himself, he is potentially going to be able to lure another victim to him," Daley said. The group had supported zero tolerance for the worst abusers and a second chance for those guilty of lesser offenses.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said the policy reflected the need to show "Christ-like compassion" to priests.
"We call them our son," he said. "Therefore, we must continue to have that compassion and forgiveness like any parent."
So many last-minute changes were made to the policy that bishops were unable to provide a full text of the plan when it was adopted. Still, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George urged his fellow bishops to embrace the policy, no matter their objections.
"We need to pass this policy with all its flaws, some of them very deep indeed," George said.
The Vatican will be asked to approve parts of the policy to make it law in the U.S. church, which includes nearly 64 million Catholics. Since each diocese answers to Rome, Vatican authorization is needed to make the policy more than just a gentlemen's agreement.
The Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, had no immediate comment on the policy but said officials there would review it — which looks to be a lengthy process.
There have been signs leaders in Rome were displeased with the reforms the Americans were discussing. Last month, the dean of canon law at Pontifical Gregorian University wrote that bishops should avoid telling congregations that priests had sexually abused someone if the bishops believe the priests will not abuse again.
The bishops began working on the policy after an April summit on the scandal between Pope John Paul II and U.S. cardinals. The first draft was released only 11 days ago, and was revised in private discussions over the past week that culminated in a late-night session Thursday.
Under the policy, bishops must report all claims of sexual abuse of a minor to public authorities. The plan also sets up diocesan review boards composed primarily of lay people to look at complaints and assess the diocese's response.
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