Bishops' 'zero-tolerance' policy faces test

Vatican is expected to give a tentative go-ahead to US crackdown on priest abuse.

Pope John Paul II is expected to give neither a red nor green light, but a yellow cautionary signal to US Catholic bishops and their controversial national policy on sexual abuse.

Sources familiar with a Vatican letter expected to be issued Friday morning say it calls for more dialogue between the Holy See and the American Church to resolve outstanding differences.

The Vatican letter comes amid a Rome visit by Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At issue is the so-called "zero tolerance" plan hammered out four months ago in Dallas by US bishops. It calls for removing priests permanently from ministry for a single act of sexual abuse against a minor, and for steps such as reporting all abuse allegations to civil authorities.

Since then, public outrage has simmered down, but distress among the clergy and church lawyers has increased.

Many priests feel confused about their rights. Some, worrying about false accusations, say that the bishops' plan – put together in haste – has run roughshod over due process. And there is concern in Rome and the US that the bishop-priest relationship is suffering.

"Many priests feel that the relationship has become somewhat adversarial, and that priests are assumed guilty until proven innocent," says the Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

The Vatican's reluctance to formally approve the bishops' proposals – which would make them binding on all bishops – comes amid wider debate over the US bishops' policy.

Priests call for due process

Some observers claim that bishops, after failing for years to address victims' allegations adequately, are leaning too far in the other direction and brushing off denials by priests. At least 300 priests have been removed from the ministry in 2002.

Last month, some priests protested loudly when Baltimore's Cardinal William Keeler, in responding to the call for more transparency, made public the names of all archdiocesan clergy accused of abuse in the past seven decades.

Lay groups are forming to support accused priests and raise money for lawyers. A new priests' group has formed in New York called Voice of the Ordained, to stand up for priests' concerns.

Last week at the annual meeting of the Canon Law Society of America, canon lawyers discussed the need to come to the aid of bishops, victims, and the accused in interpreting the policy – and carrying out investigations.

According to Patricia Dugan, a canon and civil lawyer in Philadelphia, "This is such a massive undertaking, and there just aren't enough experienced people to handle the process." She says the way some priests are being treated "would never be abided in any civil law system."

In a recent issue of the Jesuit weekly America, the Rev. John P. Beal, associate professor of canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington, identified what he termed "profoundly disturbing" aspects of the Dallas charter, including:

• A definition of sexual abuse that is "exceedingly broad and vague."

• Lack of any criteria for judging what is a "credible" allegation, which determines whether a priest must be put on administrative leave.

• Elimination of statutes of limitations, which many believe serve a useful legal purpose and are present in canon law.

Proportional punishment?

Many remain concerned that the zero tolerance policy treats all instances of abuse alike, whereas church law calls for punishment proportionate to the offense. They are distressed that priests with one decades-old instance of abuse should be mustered out of the priesthood along with serial molesters.

"There needs to be some proportionality brought into the policy so not everyone is painted by the same brush," says Father Silva.

David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests sees this as a misguided argument. "People make the mistake of thinking this is about punishing priests. Instead, it's about protecting kids," he says. "It's dangerous to assume that one known allegation means there's only one incident; that's virtually never the pattern."

Religious orders hedge

An early sign that the Dallas charter faced rough seas came last summer, when the leaders of men's religious orders agreed to go along with its "values and principles" but stopped short of applying it fully. Bishops have jurisdiction over clerics in parish ministry, while one-third of US priests fall under major superiors of religious orders. Those priests generally operate in places such as schools, seminaries, or hospitals, rather than in dioceses.

At their August meeting, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) pledged to remove offending priests from public ministry, but not from the priesthood altogether.

Because an order is a living witness to community, or family, says the Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of CMSM, "even if someone committed sexual abuse and went to prison, that is not alone grounds for dismissal according to canon law." There is a responsibility to encourage treatment and rehabilitation, and only if men refuse to accept responsibility for their actions would there be grounds for removal.

This policy actually protects children more effectively, Father Keating contends. "If we dump men on the street on their own, the first thing they'll do is regress, and perhaps go back to abuse."

While the Vatican response could put the bishops' policy in limbo, priests would still face the scrutiny of a new process to monitor their compliance, and the glare of media attention.

(Material from Reuters was used in this report.)

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