Last week, America’s Roman Catholic bishops toughened their policy toward any priest who sexually abuses a minor, something that should have been done years ago.
Henceforth, every priest who brutalizes children -even if it happened decades earlier – will no longer be permitted to celebrate Mass or perform any other ministerial functions.
Other sound steps taken by the bishops at their meeting in Dallas include reporting all sex-abuse allegations to authorities and creating local boards dominated by lay members to review all allegations. The bishops also will create a new national Office for Child and Youth Protection, to be monitored by a review board headed by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.
Although those changes are welcome, they will not automatically restore the church leaders’ shattered credibility. Much will depend on enforcing the rules. A decade ago, the bishops adopted a national policy that looked good on paper but was often ignored.
There already are questions about whether the new policy is binding. The bishops take their orders from Rome, not from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Pope John Paul II can easily settle the matter by putting his stamp of approval on the new policy.
One flaw in the eight-page Dallas document is in the treatment of clerics who molest children. They will not automatically be expelled from the priesthood. The argument for avoiding a blanket policy is to allow elderly or infirm pedophile priests, as the bishops said, to “lead a life of prayer and penance” in a quiet place such as a monastery.
It’s difficult to see why the church has any obligation toward a priest who grossly violates policy and doctrine and breaks laws.
Another flaw in the Dallas document is that it stipulates no punishment for those bishops who have long shielded abusers by shifting them from parish to parish, failing to report them to police and entering into secret monetary settlements that required the victims to keep their mouths shut.
The bishops agreed to create a committee to study their own role in the scandal and report back in November. This should not require lengthy study. An estimated two-thirds of all U.S. bishops have covered up instances of sexual abuse. The most egregious offenders ought to step down or be ousted by the Vatican.
The Dallas document offers only a framework for reform. The test will come when instances of alleged abuse arise and bishops are required to act. Going forward, victims and lay people must continue to play a watchdog role to ensure that the bishops live up to their promises.