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Clarifying Abuse Policy

The Nation's Catholic Bishops, Seeking A Balance Between The Rights of Priests And Those of Their Accusers, Adopt A Church Judicial System To Deal With Sexual Predators

Nov 14, 2002 | Buffalo News

Any Catholic priest in the United States who ever sexually abused a minor can expect to be removed from public ministry under a church judicial system approved Wednesday by the nation's bishops.

The policy amends an earlier set of rules adopted by the bishops in June. Vatican officials had rejected those earlier rules, saying that they failed to protect priests facing allegations and did not comply with canon law. The revisions were worked out last month by a committee of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials.

The bishops and American canon law experts who met with their Vatican counterparts in recent weeks said the actions overwhelmingly backed Wednesday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reaffirmed and strengthened the "zero tolerance" policies adopted at the bishops' meeting last June in Dallas.

The vote on the sexual-abuse policy was 246-7, with six abstentions.

Buffalo Bishop Henry J. Mansell said priests in Buffalo and across the nation will now be strengthened by the knowledge that they will not have to deal with "unsubstantiated and baseless charges."

"The administrative processes begun today promote effective guarantees not only of due process for priests, but also the protection of children and young people," Mansell said.

Those priests who are convicted by church courts, the canon law experts said, are severed from all public functions.

These prohibitions include saying Mass in public, wearing clerical garb, functioning as a counselor, working in schools, or hearing confession. Church authorities may also laicize, or defrock, them - for life.

"A person who has ever been found guilty will not be admitted to public ministry," said Bishop Coadjutor Joseph A. Galante of Dallas. "That is what we committed to in Dallas.

"No priest who has ever committed even one act of sexual abuse will ever go back into the ministry," said Galante, one of the bishops who worked out a compromise plan with Vatican officials.

In a news conference, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago and other church leaders fielded questions from reporters.

Many of the questions were generated by activist organizations, many of whom are at odds with official church teachings on unrelated issues such as abortion, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and marriage.

For example, there were concerns voiced about amendments required by the Vatican that appear to relieve bishops of the responsibility of reporting priestly abuse of minors where it is not expressly required by state law.

To the contrary, George said, the conference made it clear that a bishop must report any credible accusation, meaning one made by or on behalf of a named accuser, to civil authorities anywhere in the United States.

"No bishop should excuse himself from following civil law," Galante said. "We still have affirmed that all cases are to be reported, even though civil law may not require it."

Vatican power looms large

Three levels of church authorities will be involved in the disciplinary process. Only one of them exists now, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome.

Any priest who is removed by his bishop on molestation charges or other reasons may appeal that dismissal to Rome. Several appeals are pending there now.

The ultimate power of the Vatican over priestly discipline was one of the reasons given by U.S. bishops for the compromise with Rome that gave accused priests a greater measure of due process.

Church traditionalists also thought that the Dallas meeting went too far in promising to report to civil authorities "any allegation of sexual abuse."

Two types of church bodies need to be formalized and created throughout the country, which may take up to two years.

Locally, bishops will empanel review boards, whose majority will be Catholic laypeople serving five-year terms.

Advisory review boards have already been functioning informally in some dioceses, including Buffalo, where a board was recently named to handle sexual-abuse cases.

The "norms," or rules enacted Wednesday require such review boards in each diocese. Their functions may include helping a bishop evaluate allegations of sexual abuse and reviewing a bishop's policies on sexual abuse.

If the bishop and the review board hold the accusation to be credible, then the priest will be placed on leave.

The cases will then be heard and judged by a new tribunal which will hear evidence presented by a "Promoter of Justice," a church-appointed prosecutor.

If found guilty, the priest will be removed from ministry and possibly removed from the priesthood. The review process will be confidential.

Little to foster openness

The bishops' revised norms do little to create "a more open and transparent process" for protecting children, said Susan Vivian Mangold, a professor of law at the University at Buffalo and director of the Baldy Center Program on Children and the Law.

However, church tribunals, including those dealing with annulment, are private except to the parties involved.

None of these special tribunals on sexual abuse exist now.

Estimates are that it will take one to two years from the date the Vatican approves these newly approved norms to put the tribunals and Promoters of Justice in place.

Vatican approval is expected in the next six weeks and is viewed as routine.

"Will it work? None of us is a prophet," said Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill. "We hope it will."

The new policy also spells out that the church's statute of limitations requires a victim to come forward by age 28. To speed trials, church officials said, tribunals may be established on a regional or a national basis.

None of the procedures for naming church prosecutors, appointing tribunals or hearing evidence by these special panels was detailed at the bishops' conference.

Conference leaders said that those issues will be referred by the Administrative Committee, a body of 60 bishops, to canon lawyers at Catholic University and other institutions for a report.

These details will probably have to be referred back to the the conference's next meeting, in June 2003, for approval.

In the floor debate on the new "norms," Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett of Seattle said, "Our people are waiting for some sign that we realize that we have made mistakes," referring to cases where bishops transferred known sex abusers to unsuspecting bishops in other dioceses, or from parish to parish.

Deepening rift predicted

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, whose transfers within his diocese of known pederasts reignited the sexual-abuse scandal last winter, replied: "It is essential to (for bishops) apologize and to ask forgiveness within the context of our local churches."

The new policy accomplished "virtually nothing" regarding the accountability of bishops, said David Clohessy of the national group known as Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"Their answer is to increase their own power and discretion," said Clohessy, who predicted a deepening rift between bishops and their flocks as a result of the policy.

However, other documents approved Wednesday do contain specific apologies by the national conference for actions of some of the bishops.

In the conference's "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," the preamble says, in part:

"As bishops, we acknowledge our mistakes and our role in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility for too often failing victims and our people in the past."

The conference also took its first, limited steps of making bishops accountable for their actions.

In a one-page statement cursorily dealt with at the conference, the bishops stated that "in cases of sexual abuse of minors by bishops, we will apply the requirements of the charter to ourselves . In such cases, the metropolitan (a regional cardinal) will be informed."

The document was silent on the obligation to report any instances of molestation to the Vatican, which is solely responsible for disciplining bishops.

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