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Bishops Face Challenges Implementing Tough Policy On Clerical Sex Abuse

Jul 11, 2002 | AP

A month after their historic meeting on sex abuse, some of America's Roman Catholic bishops have been struggling to implement their sweeping new policy to keep priests who molest children away from parishioners.

A few priests removed from public ministry under the plan have fought back and appealed to the Vatican for reinstatement — and some rank-and-file Catholics have supported them. A handful of bishops also have delayed ousting errant clergy until they review key parts of the policy, such as its broad definition of sex abuse.

The new guidelines "raise some real questions about compatibility with our traditions," said the Rev. Thomas Green, a church law expert at The Catholic University of America.

Despite such concerns, many bishops have moved swiftly to carry out the plan.

More than 50 of the nation's 46,000 priests have either resigned from the priesthood or been permanently removed from ministry under the new policy. Those men may not wear the Roman collar, say Mass with parishioners or represent the church in any public fashion.

Those 50 removals are in addition to at least 250 priests taken off duty before bishops approved the new policy June 14 in Dallas.

Many of the newly removed clergy held administrative posts where they had no contact with children. Others were already retired, but several more were leading churches.

Five priests in the Chicago Archdiocese have asked the Vatican to return them to public duty.

The Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which claims about half of U.S. priests as members, said he is just starting to collect information about appeals in other dioceses. But he said many priests worry that the policy ignores their due process rights under church law.

Silva was particularly angered by arguments from some Catholics that errant priests have a moral obligation to step down.

"It is not to take the high road simply to acquiesce," Silva said. "Everyone has a right to appeal."

The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is handling the U.S. appeals, has not commented on the cases.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, traveled last month to Rome to deliver the policy to Vatican officials — a first step toward seeking their approval. He has said he is confident the Holy See will authorize the document, which is necessary to make it binding on all U.S. dioceses.

Until then, some bishops said they will hold off on parts of the plan.

Four Cincinnati Archdiocese priests with a history of sexual misconduct will not be removed from public ministry until Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and his administrators review the definition of abuse and other parts of the policy, archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said.

"We need to match up that definition with the files of those four priests who offended and had been returned to ministry to find out if in fact that was child abuse under the definition," he said. "It's going to happen as soon as we can do it consistent with what is right."

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