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Barring Priests Wins Overwhelming Support

Nov 14, 2002 | UNION-TRIBUNE

For the second time in less than a year, U.S. Catholic bishops have overwhelmingly adopted a policy to remove any member of the clergy who sexually abuses a child.

The revised rules, they hope, will help put to an end a scandal that has cost millions of dollars, toppled more than 300 priests and wrought an emotional toll that continues.

The rules now go to the Vatican, where bishops predict a swift endorsement that will make the policy mandatory in all Catholic dioceses in this country. The policy would then be reviewed after two years.

"I think the actions taken today represent a recommitment to what the bishops pledged in Dallas namely, that no priest who ever abused a minor, even once, will be in ministry," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who helped negotiate the revised policy.

"I believe this represents a strengthening of that commitment because we now have a consistent policy that is now on the way to becoming a (church) law in the United States," Lori said.

Under the revised policy, offenders will be barred from public ministry including celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments and wearing a clerical collar. They also will not be transferred to another diocese to practice ministry.

Some offenders could be dismissed from the clergy altogether or, in some cases, the offender could be allowed "to lead a life of prayer and penance."

The bishops also passed an accountability measure intended to hold themselves responsible for one another. It included an apology for mistakes they made that contributed to the scandal.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took its first action on what was intended to be a zero-tolerance policy in June in Dallas in response to an avalanche of abuse allegations that began in January in Boston and spread across the country.

But several points had to be worked out after the Vatican withheld its approval, preventing the policy from becoming mandatory. Critics in Rome said the rules failed to give accused priests due process. The revisions were completed late last month by a joint commission of U.S. and Vatican bishops.

Dissatisfied activists, who have spent the week on the outside looking in, criticized the bishops for what they called waffling on the policy adopted five months ago in Dallas.

"It is a return to the secrecy of the Vatican and the authority of the Vatican," said Susan Archibald of The Linkup, a victims group.

Likewise, representatives of Voice of the Faithful, a rapidly growing lay group formed in the wake of the scandal, said they worried about how effectively the policy will be implemented by each diocese.

"We call on all U.S. Catholics to hold their bishops publicly accountable," said Steve Krueger, the group's executive director.

Inside their Capitol Hill hotel, the bishops were adamant about their commitment, pointing time and again to a safeguard that allows bishops to exercise their administrative authority to block a priest from public ministry.

"The norms have not been weakened," said Bishop Joseph Galante of Dallas. Instead, he said, "These revised norms give us the mandate . . . to carry out our responsibility to safeguard children and young people."

But one thing all sides agreed on is that something needs to be done to restore credibility among the nation's 65 million Catholics or just under one in four Americans.

It is a "very painful scandal," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

Among the most contested changes between what was approved in Dallas and what was accepted yesterday is designating review boards in dioceses as a "confidential consultative body to the bishop," which some see as severely limiting the group's independence and authority.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the conference's president, rejected that impression.

"The very nature of being consultative does not mean they are unimportant," he said.

Victims of child sexual abuse by a clergyman now must come forward by age 28, which is in keeping with Catholic canons. But the revisions also say the Vatican can grant exemptions – and bishops expect those waivers to be handed out liberally.

The revisions provide additional steps intended to better protect rights of accused clergy. Priests won't be removed until after a complaint is investigated to determine if it is credible. At that point, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be notified and a church tribunal, or trial, could be held to determine the priest's guilt or innocence.

There are questions about how public such a process will be, although some observers said the final outcome will be made known.

"Like a restaurant, you won't see what goes on in the kitchen, but you'll see what comes out on the plate," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

Three San Diego County bishops attending the conference voiced their support.

"I think it's a very good document and a very good policy," said Bishop Sarhad Jammo, head of the recently formed Chaldean Catholic diocese, which is based in El Cajon and covers 19 Western states. The policy will affect both Roman and Eastern rite Catholic churches, which are under the authority of the pope.

Jammo was particularly supportive of the tribunals, saying they will bring independent resolution to these cases. "Justice will be done in an equal and fair and a proven way," he said.

Bishop Robert Brom of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego was confident that yesterday's norms will soon become Vatican-approved laws.

"We have the goal, the means and now the challenge is going to be to put in place those procedures which will complete the picture," Brom said.

Brom said he was "very pleased" the episcopal accountability measure was approved. He led the task force that developed the statement, which he said was "breaking new ground" because bishops are now committed to checks and balances among themselves. The accountability, however, is pretty much limited to the power of persuasion, since bishops do not have the authority to sanction one another.

The San Diego bishop also welcomed the conference's insistence that the statement include an apology, similar to the one included in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the sweeping policy adopted in June. The statement acknowledges the mistakes by some bishops for transferring priests who had abused minors to another assignment. "We recognize our role in the suffering this has caused. We apologize for it."

Auxiliary Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Diego was the most cautious of the three in his endorsement of the rules. "We're sort of venturing forth in uncharted waters here," said Cordileone, a canon law expert who was named auxiliary bishop in July.

"I'm looking forward to reviewing them in two years," he added.

The revised norms passed 246-7, with six abstentions. The episcopal accountability statement was passed with 231-5.

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