The Vatican gave its approval Monday to the revised U.S. bishops’ 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 in 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 old 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 the approach denied priests due process.
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.
Re said “it appears necessary to devote every available resource to restoring the public image of the Catholic priesthood.” The Vatican together with the bishops of the United States “feels duty-bound” to defend “the good name of the overwhelming majority of priests and deacons,” Re said.
The Italian prelate, who heads the Congregation of Bishops, called sex abuse “one of the most serious offenses” a priest can commit and noted that the American policy can lead to dismissal from the priesthood. But Re noted that the revised policy protects “inviolable human rights” of the accused.
The cardinal asked the American bishops to continue their meetings with the heads of religious orders who have raised several issues of concern about their members coming under the policy.
In any case, the policy comes up for review in two years.
Re’s letter stressed that the Vatican will not tolerate sex abuse crimes against children, saying that the pope has affirmed “the Holy See’s aversion to this betrayal of the trust which the faithful rightly place in Christ’s ministers, and to ensure that the guilty will be appropriately punished.”
“As the Holy Father has affirmed on various occasions, the Holy See is spiritually united to the victims of abuse and to their families and encourages particular concern for them on the part of the bishops, priests and the whole Catholic community.”
Sex abuse scandals have also erupted in a number of other countries, including Ireland, Argentina and the pope’s native Poland.
The U.S. bishops, in the face of allegations pouring out since January, decided to adopt their own special rules. Germany’s Roman Catholic Church has also declared a national policy, after previously leaving it up to each diocese to deal with priests accused of molestation.
The U.S. bishops drafted a set of norms against sex abuse at a meeting in Dallas in June, but the Vatican refused to give its “recognitio,” or approval, saying that some regulations contrasted with universal Church law.
The Vatican was concerned about priests’ receiving due protection and about the statute of limitations. This led to a meeting at the Vatican in November with U.S. Church officials to iron out their differences.
The revised plan was then approved by the bishops conference and awaited Monday’s announcement.
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 with 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.
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. 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.
Review boards including lay people will monitor how dioceses respond to abuse, but the policy stresses that only bishops can manage clergy.