Bishops walk fine line on abuse policy

Revised plan aims to uphold church law and due process for priests. Critics call for deeper reforms.

As it prepares to meet next week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops walks a delicate line in seeking to finalize church policy on sexual abuse by priests.

With the issue less in the media glare than it was earlier this year, bishops have been under pressure from the Vatican to tone down dramatic June proposals that involved "zero tolerance" for wayward priests – to prevent any weakening of the church's canon law.

At the same time, pulling back too far could rekindle frustration among Catholics nationwide. Many want assurance that a decades-long problem has been corrected.

This challenge is reflected in the changes to the policy on abuse released earlier this week – and the response to it by critics.

The bishops' conference said the revised plan held firm on its pledge of zero tolerance while providing essential due process for priests who are accused.

To victims seeking redress and to other lay Catholics, however, the changes represent a clear retreat. They say the revised policy gives more discretion to bishops rather than increasing their accountability, backpedals on the commitment to report all allegations to civil authorities, and may allow priests with incidents of abuse in the distant past to remain in ministry.

The 10-year statute of limitations in church law will once again apply, unless the Vatican gives an exemption on a particular case.

"If the Vatican doesn't give an exemption, older priests could stay in jobs and be a threat to children," says David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. Some 85 percent of victims don't come forward until later in their lives, he adds, "so people once again may suffer in silence."

The changes also weaken the lay role in the process, while introducing church tribunals presided over by clerics as the judicial process to be followed before any priest can be permanently removed. The tribunals would take place behind closed doors, counter to calls for transparency in the process.

US bishops will meet at their annual convention in Washington Nov. 11-14 to vote on the revisions, which then must go back to Rome for final approval and incorporation as a "particular law" (pertinent only to the US) within church law.

The Vatican refused to accept the policy bishops approved last June in Dallas, which it said included a definition of sexual abuse that was too ambiguous, improperly eliminated the statute of limitations, and failed to conform with canon law in regard to due process. A "mixed commission" of US bishops and Vatican officials met in Rome last week to prepare the revision.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of US Conference of Catholic Bishops, rejected the notion the reforms had been watered down: "This particular law will provide every diocese in the country with standards in canon law for protecting children and young people, reaching out to victims, assessing allegations against clergy, with the benefit of the advice of competent lay persons, and for keeping from ministry anyone who would harm children."

At the same time, the changes bring the policy firmly into conformity with church law, and would remedy concerns Vatican officials apparently had that too much deference was being paid to both laity and civil authorities in the process.

Rather than the firm pledge to report "any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor" to civil authorities, the revision calls simply for complying "with all applicable civil laws." Only about half the states currently have laws requiring clergy to report sexual abuse.

Instead of a review board with a lay majority responsible for "the assessment of allegations of sexual abuse," which would advise the bishop and communicate the assessment to the victim and accused, the new plan calls for a review board that acts as a "confidential consultative body to the bishop in discharging his responsibilities."

"Unfortunately, the Vatican has chosen to significantly diminish the scope of review boards," which is "a momentous departure from the spirit of Vatican II," says Steve Krueger, interim executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group with membership in many states.

While disappointing critics, the policy clearly remedies the confusion many priests felt about their rights, and to some extent the concerns of canon lawyers.

Under the new proposals, the process after an allegation of abuse would go as follows:

1. The bishop would carry out a preliminary investigation immediately and comply with civil reporting laws; he would refer the case to a review board, and if evidence is sufficient that abuse has occurred, the priest would be suspended from ministry, with care to protect his reputation.

2. The bishop would inform the Vatican office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with all abuse cases worldwide. If the case is past the statute of limitations, the bishop can request an exemption from the Vatican.

3. The Vatican could choose to hold hearings in Rome or have it handled by a US church tribunal. Unlike civil courts, the trial is closed, and the judges ask most of the questions.

4. If found guilty, a priest could appeal to the Vatican.

5. When a single act of abuse is admitted or established under the process, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from public ministry, and could be removed from the priesthood if the case warrants.

There is also the provision that "at all times," the bishop has the executive power through an administrative act "to remove the offending cleric from office, remove or restrict his faculties, and to limit his exercise of priestly ministry." This would not extend to removal from the priesthood.

While these provisions would seem to point to zero tolerance, skeptics of the policy worry that much will be left at the discretion of individual bishops or the Vatican – from reporting allegations to deciding to handle the statute of limitations.

This situation, they say, gave rise to the uneven and grossly inadequate handling of abuse cases in the past.

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