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Bishops Go Home With New Abuse Policy

Nov 15, 2002 | The Journal News

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops dispersed to their home dioceses yesterday having committed themselves to removing from ministry all priests who abuse minors, even if they are not entirely sure how their adopted approach will work.

A key component of the bishops' new policy to address sexual abuse, for instance, will be a system of church tribunals that will decide the guilt or innocence of accused priests in disputed cases. But bishops acknowledged this week that these courts would not be set up for at least one year and that there was no timetable for hearing cases against the dozens of priests already accused across the country.

"Will it work?" said Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., who helped craft the sex-abuse policy. "None of us here have the word 'prophet' tattooed on our foreheads."

It became increasingly clear at the bishops' conference in Washington this week that the leaders of the Catholic Church in America were treading in unfamiliar and turbulent pastoral waters. Many bishops had questions and concerns about the new policy, but their vote adopting what will become a new church law for America — 246 to 7, with six abstentions — showed how desperately they wanted to confront the church's sex-abuse scandal.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, said he hoped that the demoralized laity would see the adoption of a new policy as a new beginning for the church.

"It has been a very painful year," he said. "It has been painful to bishops as we came to terms with our mistakes. It has been painful for our priests, who have faced unfair scrutiny and difficulty in general.

"At this point, I feel very much heartened that we are in a different place," he said. "But there are other steps we have to take, and we are committed to taking those steps."

The bishops were so concerned that their credibility has been damaged by the scandal that they adopted a statement in which they essentially promise to follow their own policy. This statement of "episcopal commitment" apologizes for those bishops who moved abusive priests from parish to parish and pledges that bishops will watch and, when necessary, criticize one another.

Perhaps the bishops' most revealing decision this week was to study whether to hold a rare national church council. The last plenary council in America was held in Baltimore in 1884, but some bishops have proposed holding one to address sexual morality in America and other issues.

Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, who heads a committee studying the church council issue, at first brushed aside a question about whether a plenary council was being suggested as a response to the sex-abuse scandal. But then he acknowledged there was a connection.

"This crisis is a symptom, but it is forcing us to look at more fundamental concerns," he said.

The bishops will devote a day at their next conference in June and an entire gathering in 2004 to consider whether to hold a plenary council.

The sex-abuse policy, which needs and is all but guaranteed Vatican approval, represents a revised version of a much-heralded policy adopted by the bishops in June in Dallas. A commission of American and Vatican bishops revised the plan last month to ensure due process for accused priests.

The final policy calls for diocesan advisory boards, made up of a majority of lay people, to hold secret, preliminary investigations of allegations against priests. If a board finds a complaint to be credible, an accused priest would be removed from public ministry and given the opportunity to have his case heard by a church tribunal.

The policy, like the initial draft adopted in Dallas, says explicitly that any priest who admits or is found to have committed one act of sexual abuse against a minor can never return to public ministry, meaning they could not even say Mass in public.

A national review board set up in the spring, headed by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, will audit all 195 dioceses in the country in the next year to ensure that they are complying with the new policy.

Groups representing victims of sexual abuse have strongly opposed the revisions to the Dallas plan. They say they are particularly uncomfortable with the secret investigations of priests and a mandate that the Vatican must approve all investigations when the alleged victim is older than 28. Universal church law holds that alleged victims of sex abuse must make their complaints within 10 years of when they become an adult, in this case 18.

There were signs this week that the good will between bishops and victims that came out of Dallas, where several victims made emotional presentations to the bishops, has seriously dissipated. Victims were denied any chance to comment on the revised policy and were left to hand out fliers in the Hyatt Regency lobby like demonstrators.

Peter Isely of Milwaukee, a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that the Catholic Church's hierarchy, at the Vatican and in the United States, has opted to make its most important decisions out of public view.

"The changes they have made will increase their discretion and the secretiveness of the process," he said.

The main challenge that the bishops wrestled with for months was how to assure the removal of dangerous priests while reserving due process for those who might be innocent of charges against them. It might not be clear for some time whether they accomplished this goal.

The policy, for instance, gives bishops wide-ranging power to remove any priest in a diocese from ministry, even if a church tribunal does not establish the priest's guilt.

"A judicial process is not necessarily the end of the story," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who took part in drafting the revised policy.

A similar situation in the civil world, where a court decision could essentially be ignored and an accused person punished — would never sit well with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a church analyst who covered this week's proceedings for the Jesuit journal America.

Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, who has removed accused priests from ministry this year and promised to alert civil authorities to all future allegations against priests, said even before the conference that he would continue his aggressive policy regardless of what his fellow bishops decided for the nation as a whole.

If there were one issue other than sex abuse that often arose during the bishops conference, it was the possibility of war with Iraq. At the conference's opening, several bishops called for the group to take a position on a possible pre-emptive strike to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

In the end, the bishops adopted a statement saying that they could not find a moral justification for such an attack. They praised the United States for seeking and winning the support of the United Nations Security Council in calling for Iraq to allow new weapons inspections.

Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, head of the military archdiocese and former rector of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, said the statement did not fully recognize the efforts made by the Bush administration in seeking U.N. support to avoid war. The only option left if Iraq scuttles inspections, he told his brother bishops, might be war.

"Sometimes there is an obligation to take up arms and defend the innocent," he said.

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