Bishops urge 'zero tolerance' of abuse

After weeks of internal hand-wringing, a committee of top Catholic officials in the United States has come out with a tough policy on sexual abuse that promises "zero tolerance" on cases in the future and conveys an apology for incidents in the past.

The draft recommendation by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCB), released Wednesday, goes further in addressing the problem than many in the church had expected and perhaps some in the Vatican had wanted. But it still doesn't assuage all of the concerns of abuse victims and many parishioners in the US who have been urging broader reform in the church.

Nonetheless, analysts say the draft charter, if adopted at a meeting of bishops in Dallas next week, should help restore the confidence of some of those disaffected with a church undergoing its biggest crisis in modern history, depending on how rigorously the recommendations are carried out.

"This is a pretty tough report," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. "It puts the victim in first place. It's got concrete procedures to make sure these things don't happen again, and lay involvement in supervising how it's done."

Under the "Draft Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," the bishops offer an apology both for the criminal action of priests and the mishandling by bishops of sex abuse cases. In addition to pledging to defrock all priests who commit acts in the future, the charter calls for reporting all allegations to civil authorities.

The policy also commits to "openness" and establishes procedures for accountability at the diocesan and national levels. The involvement of lay Catholics is called for on review boards at both levels. An Office for Child and Youth Protection is to be created at the USCCB in Washington, which would produce an annual report based on audits in each of the country's dioceses.

"At first blush, the document appears to address most of the issues that American Catholics are concerned with," says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. "The one sticking point might be the issue of the single offense and whether or not that will be satisfactory to the public."

The report stopped short of zero tolerance in regard to past cases. Instead it says that defrocking would be requested for pedophiles and for any priest with more than one act of abuse against a minor. This leaves the door open for keeping priests who may have one past offense, but have demonstrated since then that they're not a danger.

Victims' groups are not convinced by what they have seen of the report. "Where's the accountability?" asks David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "And, even if these are adopted in Dallas, nothing makes them binding on any bishop or religious order."

The USCCB has had guidelines for diocesan policies in place since 1992, which include requiring compliance with civil reporting laws and dealing openly with the community. Their experience over the past decade, victims say, demonstrates that without clear consequences for failing to report or handle abuse, the public can't be confident things will really change.

Father Reese, who has been critical of the mishandling by bishops, says the new national office, audit procedures, and annual progress report do indicate real progress in accountability. "When they do a report every year, they will list the diocese of X as not participating, and the media and people will ask, 'Why the heck not?' " he says.

For the policy to be binding on every bishop, the pope will have to give his approval. "But every bishop can opt into this program voluntarily, and the moral pressure from the community will be so strong I would be amazed if bishops say no," Reese says.

These issues were discussed at the meeting of US cardinals at the Vatican in April, but few conclusions were reached. Some Vatican officials have since taken issue with the most basic concerns, such as reporting allegations to civil authorities. Rome is concerned that whatever the US does will become a model for the rest of the world, where rights of the accused are not as well respected.

The draft charter also lays out clear steps to prevent future abuse. These include a requirement for background checks of all diocesan and parish personnel who are to have contact with children; cooperation with parents and community to provide safe-environment training programs; and commitment to forwarding a complete record of any cleric being transferred or reassigned.

The policy also calls for no more confidentiality agreements except for "grave and substantial reasons, brought forward by the victim." For victims, the policy doesn't address the practices of the US church in past and present cases. They want all past gag orders lifted, personnel files of alleged abusers turned over to prosecutors, and no "hardball tactics" against victims.

For many close to the issue, the central question from here is how the policy will be be carried out. US Catholics have been outraged by a pattern of secrecy and coverup. A poll released yesterday shows 75 percent of Catholics still believe leaders are doing "a bad job." Some 87 percent say the pope should remove a cardinal or bishop who knew about abuse and shifted a priest to another parish.

The draft document, while laying out firm procedures for the future, seems unlikely to fully satisfy those who feel a lot of unfinished business remains for church leaders to accept responsibility and set a moral tone.

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