U.S. Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a compromise sex abuse policy Wednesday after the Vatican demanded they make changes to balance fairness to priests with compassion for victims.
Weary of scandal, bishops hoped the new plan would restore their credibility after 10 months of revelations that church leaders have sheltered molesters in the clergy. Victims and some rank-and-file Catholics were dissatisfied, and pledged to fight on for greater accountability from bishops.
The Vatican still must approve the policy to make it church law, and therefore binding on the bishops, but the revisions were worked out with officials from the Holy See. U.S. prelates are certain the document will receive Vatican approval.
“We are sometimes asked to choose between the accuser and the accused,” Chicago Cardinal Francis George said as he introduced the revisions for a vote. “We cannot choose one or the other. We have to choose both. We have to love both.”
The bishops voted 246-7 with six abstentions to approve the Vatican-demanded changes, which were developed to ensure due process protections for accused priests. The prelates stressed that the policy still promises clergymen will be removed from public ministry — saying Mass, teaching in Catholic schools, wearing a Roman collar — after “even one act of sexual abuse of a minor.”
A few bishops said the plan was unfair to priests who had been rehabilitated. Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick responded: “We had no choice. We must move forward.”
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the policy gives too much discretion to bishops, whose negligence caused the abuse crisis.
“Bishops have voted to give themselves more power and backtracked from their earlier promises,” said Barbara Blaine, the group’s president. “It is critical that survivors keep coming forward, regardless of the obstacles.”
The lay reform group Voice of the Faithful, created in response to the molestation scandals, said the plan created “a cumbersome procedure” that overlooks “the spiritual and pastoral needs of the survivors.”
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, then must go before a clerical tribunal to determine his guilt or innocence.
Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill., who contributed to the revisions, pleaded for patience as the bishops worked out implementation of the policy. It will take at least a year to form the courts and train church prosecutors and judges, he said.
“This is a difficult moment for the church so we had to do something to get past it,” Doran said. “Will it work? None of us is a prophet. We hope it will.”
Bishops are compelled to obey local civil laws when it comes to reporting abuse claims, but no more than that. The church leaders, however, pledged to report all allegations involving children to civil authorities.
At least 325 of the nation’s 46,000 priests have resigned or been removed from their posts because of accusations of sex abuse, with cases dating back years or even decades. Assuming the Vatican backs the policy, many of those cases will be heard by church courts, George said.
Asked about the chance the American plan will win approval in Rome, a senior Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that “the climate here is favorable.”
The bishops are trying to heal a church under siege, facing grand jury investigations, hundreds of civil lawsuits and parishioner dissent. In his opening address of the meeting, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said critics were capitalizing on the scandal to push their agendas.
At a meeting last June in Dallas, the bishops responded to the outcry by approving their original policy to crack down on molesters. It stressed bishops’ authority to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as an alleged victim made a claim.
That worried Vatican officials, who said the U.S. bishops weren’t following global church mandates on protecting the rights of priests. The Holy See withheld its approval of the policy until the plan was reworked. The joint Vatican-American commission handled the revisions in two days of meetings last month.
The new policy also spells out that the church’s statute of limitations requires a victim to come forward by age 28, though bishops can ask the Vatican for a waiver in special cases.
Review boards including lay people will continue to monitor abuse claims, but the policy reasserts that it is the bishops who have the authority to manage clergy.