|| Bishops say revised policy strengthens child
By JOE FEUERHERD
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002