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Loophole In Deal On Suspected Priests

Standard Would Be 'Applicable Civil Law'

Nov 5, 2002 | Los Angeles Times Roman Catholic leaders in more than one-third of the United States could have significant new leeway on whether to tell authorities about priests suspected of molesting minors under a revised sex-abuse prevention policy negotiated last week between U.S. bishops and the Vatican.

Church officials released Monday the full text of the revised policy, which shows that a potentially significant loophole was added to a section on reporting priests to civil authorities.

Under the abuse policy approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last June in Dallas, church leaders would have been required to report any case of sexual abuse to government officials. But under the latest revisions, bishops would be required to comply only with applicable civil laws on reporting.

Thirty-two states -- including California -- require clergy either explicitly or implicitly to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect. The other states have no such reporting requirement, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Church officials said Monday the change would have little or no practical effect on the commitment of bishops to report sexual abuse, but news of the change brought new criticism from advocates for victims of sexual abuse.

"This is a huge and shameful retreat from doing what any responsible party should do to doing what is only required by law," said Mark Serrano of Leesburg, Va., a spokesman for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"We've gone from a clear set of common-sense rules back to a complicated murky set of 'suggestions,' in which bishops have more discretion and lay people have less voice."

In another change, the revisions say that the sexual-abuse review boards established in each diocese by the Dallas policy are to function "as a confidential consultative body" to the local bishop.

The revisions strike down a Dallas provision requiring those review boards to report the results of their investigations to the alleged victims and accused clergy.

After the bishops approved the original policy in June, the Vatican objected to what it said were abridgments of the due-process rights of accused priests, an overly broad definition of sexual abuse, and a lack of clarity in the role of the lay-dominated review boards.

An eight-member commission, made up of four U.S. bishops and four Vatican officials, hammered out the revisions last week in Vatican City. The revisions are scheduled to be voted on next week when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Washington.

As word leaked out last week, there was controversy over a revision which, in effect, struck down the Dallas plan's widely touted zero-tolerance policy of sexual abuse -- "past, present or future." The revision said the church's 10-year statute of limitations would continue to apply, although it said bishops could ask for a waiver.

The Rev. Arthur Espelage, a canon lawyer and executive coordinator for the Canon Law Society of America, said he believed that the changes would have no affect on the willingness of bishops to report abuse.

"When the civil law requires you have to report, there's no problem. When the civil law does not require reporting, then a bishop can create his own particular ecclesiastical law for his diocese which requires reporting," Espelage said.

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