The revised sex abuse policy for U.S. Roman Catholic clergy calls for tribunals to hear the cases of accused priests and mandates that guilty clerics including those who committed offenses years ago – must be removed from church work, a key American bishop said Friday.
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., provided new details of the updated policy, which has not been released to the public. He was one of four American prelates who negotiated the plan with four Vatican officials Monday and Tuesday in Rome.
The joint commission’s work could become binding on U.S. prelates if it is approved at a meeting Nov. 11-14 of all the American bishops and then passes a final Vatican review.
“When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or a deacon is admitted or established,” Lori said, reading from the new text, “the offending priest will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”
Like other U.S. church leaders, Lori said the new plan preserves and even bolsters the commitment the American hierarchy made at its June meeting in Dallas to protecting children. In an interview with The Associated Press, Lori also explained several changes made to the policy this week.
The document consisting of 13 sections or “norms” – was faxed Friday to bishops around the country, Lori said. The revised plan is already setting off another round of intense debate on whether the American church has done enough to rid itself of molesters in the clergy.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said setting up clerical tribunals to hear cases comes “totally out of left field.”
“The real solution is the greater involvement of independent law enforcement and more Catholic parents,” he said.
But the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Wilton Gregory, said in a statement Friday the revised document “substantially confirms the decisions made at the June general meeting,” when the original policy was passed.
Lori said molestation claims against priests would now be handled as follows:
When a priest is accused, the bishop would carry out a preliminary investigation, including advice from a local review board. If evidence of misconduct is found, the bishop would refer the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has worldwide jurisdiction over abuse claims.
The bishop would also put the accused priest on administrative leave.
After review in Rome, the case would be sent back to a tribunal in the bishop’s region for trial. If the priest were found guilty, he would retain the right to appeal back to the Vatican.
In one change from the Dallas policy, the statute of limitations under church law abuse cases must be filed before victims reaches age 28 would now apply. However, the bishop is directed to ask the Holy See for an exception to the age limit if he thinks the situation requires it.
A newly added provision says the bishop always has the right to keep any cleric from being active in the ministry. Lori described that measure as a “backstop” for bishop dealing with these cases.
The rewritten norms also tighten the definition of sex abuse to remove mere thought. Still, abuse need not involve intercourse, physical force or even physical contact to be a sin and a crime, Lori said.
The new policy also underscores that local review boards are advisory only and the bishop retains full authority in managing clergy.
Bishop also must comply with local law on referring abuse allegations to civil authorities under the new plan. The Dallas version said all credible accusations should be reported, whether or not secular law requires it.