The Vatican gave its approval Monday to the U.S. bishops’ revised policy to combat sex abuse in the clergy, declaring the need to restore the image of the priesthood in a scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church.
Approval had been expected after differences over the original plan were worked out by a joint U.S.-Vatican commission in November.
The policy allows bishops to conduct a confidential, preliminary inquiry when a molestation claim is made to determine whether it is plausible. If it is, the accused priest is to be put on leave and then must go before a clerical tribunal to determine his guilt or innocence.
The policy that the bishops approved in Dallas five months ago allowed church leaders to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as they are accused. Vatican officials expressed concern that the approach denied priests due process.
A spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino said Monday that the quick approval by the Vatican signals the church’s commitment to finding solutions to the child sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the American church since January.
“Rome moved very quickly on this and that shows their commitment to the total protection of children,’ the Rev. Howard Lincoln said.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said in a prepared statement that the Vatican’s approval of the policy should send a clear message.
“The Archdiocese of Los Angeles welcomes the Holy See’s approval today of the Essential Norms for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy,’ Mahony said in his statement. “The norms, along with the U.S. bishops’ ‘Charter for the Protection of Young People’ underscores the church’s unwavering commitment to the protection and safety of our children.’
Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg stressed that the implementation of the new policy into church law will not alter the archdiocese’s existing policy, which calls for any known sexual abuser to be barred from active ministry and for all of the archdiocese’s staff to adhere to California’s mandatory reporting laws.
Under the revised policy, bishops are compelled to obey local civil law on reporting abuse claims, but not more than that. The church leaders, however, have pledged to report all allegations involving children to civil authorities.
The Vatican released a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, informing him of the Holy See’s approval and pledging its support to “combat and to prevent such evil.’
The Vatican announcement came three days after Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston, removing a figure who was a flash point for victims’ groups, lay Catholics and some priests.
Law, making his first public appearance since resigning as archbishop, offered another apology and asked for forgiveness Monday for his role in the clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston Archdiocese.
“As I said last Friday, it is my hope and it’s my prayer that my resignation as archbishop might help the Archdiocese of Boston to experience healing, to experience reconciliation and to experience unity,’ Law told reporters at a brief news conference. He left without taking any questions.
Law, 71, said although he had hoped to remain head of the fourth-largest U.S. archdiocese, “It came to be ever more clear to me that the most effective way I might serve the church at this moment was to resign.’
Law expressed uncertainty about his future, and said he plans to take a brief vacation with fellow priests after Christmas and later retreat to a monastery.
The U.S. bishops say that the revised guidelines still require guilty clerics to be removed from public ministry saying Mass, teaching in Catholic schools, wearing a Roman collar after a single case of abuse of a minor.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests have criticized the revised rules, saying they give too much discretion to bishops, whose negligence fueled the molestation crisis.
But the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s spokesman Tamberg said on Monday that criticism of the revised policy is unwarranted.
“We don’t believe the policy is watered down from the original version at all,’ Tamberg said. “Critics have not been able to point convincingly to how this revised policy is watered down. What we are dealing with is hyperbole on the part of some lawyers who believe it to be in their best interest to portray the church as either not fully understanding of the problem or not doing enough to respond to it. It is irresponsible.’
Under the new policy, bishops can also ask the Vatican to waive the church’s statute of limitations, which requires victims to come forward by age 28.
Review boards including lay people will monitor how dioceses respond to abuse, but the policy stresses that only bishops can manage clergy. Staff Writer Will Matthews and The Associated Press contributed to this report.