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Revised Rules Give Accused Priests More Protection

Nov 5, 2002 | Pioneer Press

The Vatican will retain more influence, and priests will have greater legal protection on all sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church under revised policies that will be considered by Catholic bishops next week.

A special U.S.-Vatican panel of bishops released the revised rules Monday after the Vatican raised objections to abuse reforms adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last June in Dallas.

The new rules alter the Dallas reforms by scaling back the power of lay review boards in each diocese, eliminating regional review boards and not automatically removing priests once allegations are made.

Bishops will debate the changes next week when they meet in Washington. The document, if approved, would then be sent back to the Vatican for final approval.

The revisions would:

• Remove the power of lay review boards to "assess" abuse allegations, allowing them only to "advise" bishops on handling the cases. The review boards would also need to have more members who are in "full communion" with the church.

• Allow priests to remain in their pulpits while a full investigation is mounted by church officials. Critics said the Dallas rules yanked priests from their parishes before charges could be deemed credible.

• Impose the Vatican's 10-year statute of limitations on abuse cases. Charges must be made by the time the victim turns 28; a bishop could apply to the Vatican for an exemption for "appropriate pastoral reasons."

• Not force church officials to report allegations to civil authorities. Instead, dioceses would have to comply only with "applicable civil laws," which vary by state.

However, the changes preserve a bishop's administrative right to keep an unsuitable priest from working in public ministry. For example, if a priest is found guilty of abuse after the statute of limitations has expired, a bishop could effectively place that priest in administrative limbo by refusing to give him an assignment.

The revamped policies tighten the definition of sexual abuse to include "external, objectively grave" violations of the Sixth Commandment's prohibitions against adultery. The rules also prohibit the transfer of known abusers from one diocese to another, and any priest who is transferred will be accompanied "by any other information indicating that he has been or may be a danger to children or young people."

The bishops agreed to give the Vatican greater influence on abuse cases. Most cases will continue to be handled by local bishops, but in accord with a rule issued last year, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could take over cases "because of special circumstances."

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the bishops conference, said the Vatican "has shown a legitimate concern for the rights of the accused while fully supporting the obligation of the bishops to ensure these rights and the right of the faithful to be protected."

While the bulk of the policy remains intact, the changes angered victims' groups. David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said imposing a strict statute of limitations would prevent older victims from coming forward.

"For four months, bishops have been pummeled by accused priests and their defense lawyers, and now they're caving in to that pressure," Clohessy said.

Lay groups were equally upset with the changes. In Boston, where the scandal erupted last January, the insurgent Voice of the Faithful movement has advocated a stronger role for lay groups, especially when deciding whether abusive priests should be allowed to remain in their pulpits.

Mike Emerton, a Voice of the Faithful spokesman, said the revised rules are a "detour" from the Dallas charter. "It's also a departure from (the Second Vatican Council), which clearly spelled out greater lay participation in the church."

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