An American cardinal said Sunday he expects Pope John Paul II will grant the U.S. Church a waiver from church law so it can implement its new clerical abuse policy.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was in Rome over the weekend, made the comments in an interview with the Associated Press, bolstering suggestions by senior Vatican officials that the Holy See was leaning toward accepting the policy on an experimental basis.
American bishops adopted the policy in June after a wave of sex abuse allegations against priests and reports that their superiors tried to cover up wrongdoing by moving known offenders from parish to parish.
The bishops want Vatican approval so their policy has the full weight of Rome behind them. A rejection would be an embarrassing blow to U.S. bishops who are struggling to restore credibility in the wake of the scandal.
The provisions in the new policy include requiring dioceses to remove guilty priests from church work, and, in some instances, from the priesthood.
It also removes a statute of limitations for abuse claims, saying a guilty priest will be relieved of his ministry for “even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor past, present or future.”
U.S. church lawyers have questioned whether the plan conflicts with canon law and the due process rights of accused clergy and whether the diocesan lay review boards mandated in the plan have too much authority.
George, who said he had discussed the issue with cardinals in Rome over the weekend, said he expected the pope would accept the policy, and would grant the American Church a waiver to get around aspects of church law that may conflict with the new rules.
For example, he said, church law provides for a full-blown trial for an accused priest before he can be defrocked.
George said American prelates went to the Vatican in April for a summit with the pope to ask him to consider granting an exception to the law because the scandal warranted faster action than a trial would allow.
“What we asked for was a simplified administrative process, when to meet pastoral needs, we have to remove a priest quickly,” he said. “And the response was ‘Give us some procedures, we’ll entertain that.'”
He said he expected Pope John Paul II would follow through by granting a so-called “derogation” from church law for a limited time in the United States to allow the policy to be applied.
The pope, he noted, is the top legislator of the Vatican, and can amend and apply canon law at his own discretion.
“Not even the pope can change moral law. Canon law is procedural law, and since the pope is the lawgiver, the pope can make an exception,” he said.
Such waivers are known as “dispensations” when granted on a case-by-case basis, but are called “derogations” for the type of blanket waiver that would cover the American case, George said.
He added that it was possible the Vatican might change some elements of the policy, but that in general he expected it to be accepted.
The head of America’s Roman Catholic bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, is in Rome this week and is expected to formally receive the Vatican’s response, crafted after review by five Vatican committees, senior Vatican officials said.
Bishop Gregory said recently he intended to give the response to the bishops first and subsequently “to make whatever public disclosure would be appropriate.”