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Church in Crisis

Commission to review norms


Despite efforts by the U.S. bishops to avoid an air of crisis, the long-awaited response from Rome to their Dallas sex abuse norms has generated divisions that may prove difficult to resolve, both inside the Vatican and in the court of American Catholic opinion.

The response came in an Oct. 14 letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, which said that changes would be necessary before Rome will sign off on the Dallas program.

In an Oct. 18 news briefing, Gregory listed the key issues, long familiar to observers:

  • The role and powers of lay review boards;
  • The definition of sexual abuse;
  • Due process guarantees for accused priests.

The response, which was neither the outright rejection some in the Vatican wanted, nor the cautious approval many in the U.S. bishops’ conference hoped for, means that for now the norms adopted in Dallas are not binding on American bishops. Where the norms conflict with the Code of Canon Law, for now canon law takes precedence.

The response was not a surprise. NCR first reported that the Vatican would have difficulties with Dallas documents June 14, the day of the bishops’ vote, and in mid-September broke the story of the Vatican letter declining to grant legal recognition to the norms.

A “mixed commission,” composed of four representatives from the Vatican and four American bishops, will try to hammer out a resolution before the full meeting of the U.S. bishops in Washington Nov. 11-14.

The men chosen to represent the Vatican for the commission are: Archbishop Julian Herranz, a Spaniard and the president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts; Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an Italian and secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, a Colombian serving as prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; and Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, an Italian and the secretary of the Congregation for Bishops.

U.S. prelates chosen for the commission are: Chicago Cardinal Francis George; San Francisco Archbishop William Levada; Rockford, Ill., Bishop Thomas Doran; and Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori.

George and Levada both assisted in the composition of a proposal to examine ways to oversee the implementation by the U.S. bishops of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

For six years, Levada served in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Lori currently serves on the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Doran for eight years worked in the Roman Rota tribunal in the Vatican. He currently is a member of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court in the Vatican.

The norms have been awaiting Vatican action since mid-June. From the beginning, it has been clear that many in the Vatican are troubled by the Dallas program. In general, officials in Rome worry that the American bishops went too far in the direction of summary justice for accused priests, and were too eager to abdicate their own responsibility for resolving the problem to outside agents, whether civil authorities or lay review boards.

The intra-Vatican debate, therefore, did not shape up primarily as pro-Dallas vs. anti-Dallas, but rather how hard an anti-Dallas line to take.

Vatican factions

One Vatican faction, led by Re, argued for a flexible approach, allowing the U.S. bishops to experiment with applying the norms between now and the review after two years fixed in Dallas. If the approach resulted in a number of well-founded appeals from suspended priests to Rome, this line of reasoning went, the problem could always be handled in church courts.

Indeed, Re actually favored a prudent silence rather than a public letter -- at most, favoring a letter that merely promised careful consideration after the experimental period.

The approach was vintage Re, the most prominent of the so-called “Benelli’s widows,” meaning someone who owes his placement in the Roman curia to Cardinal Giovanni Benelli. The right-hand man of Pope Paul VI, Benelli was known for a subtle, flexible, quintessentially “Italian” approach to solving problems.

Pushing for a harder line were two of the men chosen for the commission, Castrillón and Herranz. Both men argued behind the scenes that the Dallas program has serious canonical flaws, and it serves no purpose to disguise what would eventually have to be a negative judgment.

Castrillón and Re are both widely viewed as leading candidates to be the next pope. Herranz is the highest-ranking member of Opus Dei to serve in the Roman curia.

In the end, Re’s letter reflected a compromise between these two views. The opening paragraphs were full of praise of the American bishops, expressing “full solidarity with the bishops of the United States in their firm condemnation of sexual misdeeds against minors.”

The letter went on, however, to cite “confusion and ambiguity” in the norms, to assert that both Dallas texts “contain provisions which in some aspects are difficult to reconcile with the universal law of the church,” and to complain of “vague or imprecise” terminology that is “difficult to interpret.”

Whatever the mixed commission comes up with will have to be submitted first to the U.S. bishops for reconsideration, and eventually back to Rome.

In the United States, meanwhile, spokes-persons for the bishops’ conference are striving to phrase the Vatican response as a fundamentally affirmative stance, with some work to be done on matters of detail.

“There is a strong sense of wanting to collaborate,” said Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, vice-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said on a live call-in program on WBUR in Boston Oct. 22.

“In our conversations in the Vatican, there were no major red flags, no particular areas of concern,” he said. “The spirit was very collaborative and cooperative.”

Reaction in other circles, however, was considerably stronger. Victims groups were largely critical, seeing the Vatican response as a retreat from the zero-tolerance stance adopted in Dallas.

“This is a tragic day for American Catholics,” read an Oct. 18 statement from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Without Vatican approval, we’re now back at square one. Each bishop can decide for himself how to handle abusive priests. The Dallas Charter, weak though it was, has now been gutted.

“American bishops may try to ‘spin’ this and minimize what the Vatican has done, but make no mistake about it -- Rome’s bureaucrats have rejected the weak measures bishops adopted in Dallas, and our children are at risk as a result,” the statement said.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network, told NCR Oct. 18 that his group will protest the failure to include laypeople, especially sexual abuse victims, on the mixed commission to work out the differences between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops.

“It’s almost like, have they learned nothing?” Clohessy asked.

‘It’s a bishops’ document’

Skylstad addressed the omission of laity from the mixed commission during the Oct. 22 WBUR broadcast.

“It’s a bishops’ document, and they felt they wanted the input to be high-level to work it out,” Skylstad said. “This is the normal procedure for the church.”

Priests’ groups, meanwhile, generally welcomed the Vatican action. Fr. Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, told the Associated Press the Vatican response is “good news.”

“It’ll be a great help. It will give the priests more energy to pursue just treatment,” said Silva.

Fr. Richard Bullock, a priest of the Boston archdiocese, told WBUR that the Vatican diagnosis of the weaknesses in the Dallas program have been confirmed in Boston.

“There has not been due process in our diocese,” Bullock said. “Priests have been charged and summarily removed. There has been a rush to judgment and a presumption of guilt.” Bullock said he hopes that protection of due process would be “ensured by what comes out of Rome.”

It is not immediately clear what impact the ruling will have on the canonical appeals already filed by some of the approximately 300 priests removed from ministry under the terms of the Dallas norms. Gregory said these appeals “will continue” but did not explain whether they will be adjudicated under existing canon law, the Dallas norms or the eventual results of the work of the mixed commission.

Also unclear is what U.S. bishops will now do. Will they implement Dallas as written, will they await the results of the mixed commission or will they pick and choose which elements to enforce? Vatican officials were quoted saying that the bishops should not implement the most controversial points, while Gregory told the Rome news conference that they would continue full steam ahead.

Problem areas

In his remarks at the Oct. 18 Rome press conference, Gregory, who said he was neither disappointed nor surprised by the Vatican response, cited three areas the mixed commission will have to address.

The first is the precise role and powers of lay review boards at the national and diocesan levels. Canon law indicates that the power to impose penalties on priests rests exclusively with his bishop or religious superior.

Second, Gregory cited the definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas documents. Vatican officials have been concerned about the sweeping nature of this standard, which encompasses a wide range of physical and non-physical acts.

Finally, Gregory listed as a problem area the “procedures” to be employed when a priest is known to have abused a minor. Analysts regard that as a reference to due process issues, including the imposition of a penalty outside canon law’s 10-year statute of limitations from the victim’s 18th birthday, as well as disregard of the principle that a priest cannot be removed from ministry without a trial.

Gregory said that the statute of limitations did not come up during his weeklong meetings with Vatican officials, but that it could come up in the mixed commission. Skylstad told WBUR that the statute of limitations was a “difficult issue,” and could not predict how it might be resolved.

Canon law also guarantees confidentiality to the accused, a rule that is difficult to reconcile with actions by dioceses nationwide to publicize the names of priests flagged as alleged abusers. Canon law likewise treats removal from ministry as a penalty of last resort, but it is the only option permitted under the Dallas norms.

When a reporter asked Gregory if having the work done by mid-November would be a miracle, he responded: “You’re talking to a guy who believes in miracles.”

John L. Allen Jr., NCR Rome correspondent, is currently on a book tour in the United States. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002