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Bishops say revised policy strengthens child protections


While insisting that even a single act of sex abuse of a child by a priest will trigger permanent removal from ministry, the U.S. bishops adopted child protection polices Nov. 13 that also acknowledge the right of accused priests to a formal church trial.

The revised norms -- approved by a vote of 246-7 -- respond to concerns raised by Vatican officials that the bishops’ previous policy, adopted last June, violated canon law due process requirements.

Bishops asserted that the revised norms do not weaken requirements to report sex abuse allegations to civil and criminal authorities, and to cooperate with resulting investigations. The strong defense of the revised policies comes as critics contend the changes, worked out over two days of late October meetings in Rome, are a step back from the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the U.S. bishops in June.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, for example, said the revisions deal exclusively with the procedures for removing an abusive priest from public ministry. The changes provide a “stable juridical framework” to implement those policies, said George, a member of the U.S./Vatican “mixed commission” that drafted the changes.

The status of a priest who committed sexual abuse against a minor many years ago -- and has subsequently reformed and engaged in exemplary ministry -- prompted discussion.

Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan asked if such a priest has a “sliver of a hope” of reinstatement to public ministry. Similarly, Evansville, Ind., Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger said he is “pained by those who have sinned and have been able to show that they can change,” but who are unable to return to ministry.

Rockford, Ill., Bishop Thomas Doran offered a definitive response: A priest found to have engaged in sexual abuse “will not be allowed to resume active ministry under any circumstances” either through the findings of a tribunal, or through administrative action taken by a bishop following a trial. “The commitment of the bishops of the United States to the protection of children and young persons remains absolutely firm,” said Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori, a member of the mixed commission.

Under the revised policies:

  • Sexual abuse is defined as an “external, objectively grave violation of the Sixth Commandment.” In the June document, abuse was defined as “contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult.” The latter definition was considered overly broad by some Vatican officials and American canon lawyers. The new definition means that priests cannot be removed from ministry for “what [they] think,” but only for “external actions that are sinful,” said Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante. Church courts will have to work out on a case-by-case basis exactly which behaviors meet the standard.
  • Bishops would be required to ask Rome for an exception to the statute of limitations in canon law, which bars action against a priest accused of abuse more than a decade after the alleged victim turned 18 years of age. Accused priests would be suspended from active ministry pending acceptance of the exemption request.
  • Priests from religious orders would be explicitly covered by the new procedures, a policy George said was “implicit” in the previous policy.

Under the new policy, a diocesan review board would consider the credibility of the charges prior to referring the case to trial. The structure of the tribunals that would hear such cases remains an open question -- with some bishops suggesting that there should be national panels to ensure fairness across diocesan boundaries.

The norms must be formally approved by the Vatican to become “particular law” in the United States, though that is considered a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, the bishops also approved a “Statement of Episcopal Commitment” in which they acknowledged “mistakes in the past when bishops have transferred priests who had abused minors from one assignment to another.” Said the bishops, “We recognize our role in the suffering this has caused, and we apologize for it.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002