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Questions Abound Over Prelates' Revised Policies On Sexual Abuse

Many of The Details Not Yet Formulated

Nov 15, 2002 | UNION-TRIBUNE

As the nation's Catholic bishops headed up the escalator and out the door yesterday, the circle of reporters deepened around Chicago Cardinal Francis George.

Confusion abounded about the details of the revised sexual abuse policy passed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week.

What about the review boards in each diocese?

Their work will be confidential. They may be called in when a complaint is first made or later on in the investigative process. "But ideally its best use is at the beginning," George said.

Who will conduct the initial inquiry to see if the complaint has merit?

Perhaps the bishop or another diocesan official.

What about the church tribunals?

Some dioceses may try to use the local panels already established, mostly to hear marriage annulment cases. Or the canon law judges in those local tribunals may be tapped to be on regional or national church courts.

Will the results of these tribunals be made public?

"I don't know," George said.

And he isn't just another man in a Roman collar. He was one of four leaders who represented the United States on a panel that negotiated these rules last month at the Vatican.

The amended versions of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and its accompanying rules spell out that there will be an investigation, there will be review boards, there will be notification to the Vatican, there will be requests to lift the statute of limitations on filing complaints and there will be church tribunals for priests and deacons who choose to fight sexual abuse allegations.

But the details? They may have to wait until the lines on the pages of these documents approved by bishops are put into practice. The rules now go to the Vatican for its approval, which would make them binding in all U.S. dioceses.

There were nearly as many interpretations of the details as there were bishops here for the four-day, semi-annual meeting. But George argued that there was nothing up for interpretation about the bottom line: "The important part of all this is the protection of children by the removal of priests who committed the crime and sin of abusing minors."

That said, critics found no such clarity in the one-page "episcopal commitment" of accountability adopted by the conference.

Disciplining a Catholic bishop is a tricky subject. Bishops say they do not have the authority to sanction each other. That's the job of the pope, who appoints these prelates in the first place.

The bishops rejected an amendment offered by Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss that would have censured "those bishops who transferred priests accused of sexual abuse of minors from parish to parish."

Instead, this episcopal commitment included an apology and an agreement to meet in regional groups to offer "fraternal support, fraternal challenge and fraternal correction."

The bishops also will advise the ranking Catholic prelate in their region when one of them is accused of sexual misconduct involving minors or when financial demands are made against a bishop because of alleged sexual misconduct. The conference dropped a proposal to inform the apostolic nuncio, who is the pope's representative in the United States.

Peter Isely, a Milwaukee Catholic and abuse victim, wasn't impressed.

"They have refused to discipline themselves or to enact any kind of penalties and measures against them," said Isely, a board member of the victims rights group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "That's just a kind of hypocrisy."

But San Diego Bishop Robert Brom, who chaired the accountability task force, countered that this commitment is important – even if the emphasis is on the "fraternal" power of persuasion. No longer is it live and let live, he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. bishops spent yesterday morning, the final day of their fall meeting, behind closed doors in an executive session. When the meeting adjourned, the bishops began to head home.

The undercurrents since the conference began on Monday are notable.

Much was made about the increased visibility of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who through this year's sexual abuse scandal has become the poster boy for how not to handle priests who molest children.

It was in Law's archdiocese where the scandal broke in January, with reports of offenders transferred to other parishes and complaints covered up. Though allegations have since spread across the country, the lawsuits in Boston threaten to bankrupt that archdiocese.

In Dallas in June, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops first adopted its zero-tolerance stand and dramatically apologized for a scandal of sex, lies and secrecy, Law was much more subdued.

For four days in Texas, he sat quietly and avoided the spotlight. Here, at this week's semi-annual gathering, he strode frequently to the center stage and sat in on various news conferences.

Law presented the statements raising moral objections to an attack on Iraq and pleading for the release of kidnapped Colombian Bishop Jorge Jimenez Carvajal. He spoke in favor of the revised sexual abuse policy and was among those insisting that the bishops' accountability commitment include an apology for past wrongdoing.

One bishop, when asked about the validity of Law's so-called resurrection, shook his head. "We all admit that what happened was so egregious, there can be no recovery," he said.

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said part of this perception is media hype. Which means part of it is not.

"He's come to a much greater understanding of the consequences of abuse," Morrissey said.

Law is working hard to make amends, she said, from meeting with victims to setting up programs for prevention training and reconciliation. But he hasn't been officially punished for the role he played in transferring abusive priests and not properly addressing complaints.

"He's paying a price every day," Morrissey responded.

There are other observations. This meeting signaled a return to an agenda packed with social justice issues.

Bishops pledged to do a better job of fighting poverty and passed a joint statement with Mexican bishops about supporting migrants and protecting their human rights. They adopted a renewed emphasis on domestic violence and ministering to Latinos, who account for 39 percent of the country's 65 million Catholics.

Will the public pay attention to their moral leadership?

"In fact, the moral voice of the church is certainly weakened," Cardinal George acknowledged yesterday. "Nevertheless, we have to do what the Lord wants us to do."

Some openly suggested it was time to move on.

"The church has done everything it can do to restore its credibility," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. The action taken this week "really should be the final step.

"I think prospectively and respectively," McCarrick added, "this thing should be over."

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